Love and authenticity

‘The Skin Horse tells his story’: Illustration by William Nicholson

The Velveteen Rabbit
Or How Toys Become Real
by Margery Williams,
illustrated by William Nicholson.
Carousel 1976 (1922).

A classic tale first published a century ago, The Velveteen Rabbit can come across as insufferably sentimental, and it was the rumour of this sentimentality that has stopped me from reading it for so long.

But unfounded prejudice is never a good attitude to cultivate, whether in a critic or in general, so in its centenary year I deigned to pick up a decades-old copy from the shelved books of our now grown-up children, in order to judge for myself and see whether the common opinion of it was justified.

I now find that it was justified, but – and this is a big ‘but’ – I’ve also experienced the magic that, sentiment or not, undoubtedly lingers around this story and renders it a true classic, aided immeasurably by the delightful original illustrations by William Nicholson which complement the text so well.

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An uncertain future

© C A Lovegrove

The World According to Anna
by Jostein Gaarder.
Anna. En fabel om klodens klima og miljø, 2013,
translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2015.

When the original subtitle of a novel reads “a fable about the earth’s climate and environment” then you know there’s a lesson being offered. Though fables are usually defined as short stories with a human moral featuring animal characters, Jostein Gaarder’s tale is longer than most such fables, and its moral features the animals as victims of humanity’s dubious morality.

With any literary fable there is a worry that increased length may affect effective storytelling, with the moral risking being the tail that wags the dog. Gaarder doesn’t always successfully maintain the balance, I feel, but he does it with style and evident passion and furnished this reader at least with much to think about.

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Stories I know to be true

Some editions of Marie de France’s lais

The Lais of Marie de France,
introduction by Keith Busby,
translated by Glyn S. Burgess.
Penguin Classics 1999 (1986)

The editor and translator of Marie’s lais, leading scholars in the field of medieval French literature, have in the best tradition of Penguin Classics aimed to make their subject accessible to the general public. Translating a foreign text, especially a poetic text, is always full of difficulties, but luckily Marie’s poems, simple in expression and apparently without artifice, speak as well in translation as in the original.

A comparison with the pseudo-medieval version served up by Eugene Mason in the early 20th century is revealing for not only how tastes have changed but how many liberties were taken then with the text. For example, where Mason has Marie addressing critics with “Now let the japer, and the smiler with his knife, do me what harm they may. Verily they are in their right to speak ill of me,” Burgess offers us “But just because spiteful tittle-tattlers attempt to find fault with me I do not intend to give up. They have a right to make slanderous remarks.”

The original text mentions jongleur, or entertainer, and losengier, a flatterer or liar, and I think Burgess gets closer to what the poet intended with her simpler phraseology, which might now be rendered as “it’s their right to badmouth me!”

Nel vueil mie pur ceo laissier, | se jangleür u losengier | le me vuelent a mal turner; | ceo est lur dreiz de mesparler.

For convenience the 1999 edition prints three of Marie’s shorter lais in their original French, and anybody with even just a smattering of the language can follow the gist of the tales and see how accessible the translator has made them.

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A beautiful and terrible thing

J K Rowling: The Tales of Beedle the Bard.
Translated from the original runes by Hermione Granger
Bloomsbury 2008 (2007)

Here is a set of Chinese boxes, fitting intricately one inside the other. As the title implies, a fifteenth-century bard called Beedle is said to have written them down in runes, subsequently translated by “the brightest witch of her age,” Hermione Granger. The translation is itself nested within Albus Dumbledore’s footnotes, then bookended by Jo Rowling’s Introduction (the author added illustrations and additional footnotes) and by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne’s missive about the Children’s High Level Group charity which supports over a quarter of a million vulnerable children in residential homes across Europe.

Bearing in mind the NGO’s compassionate aims it’s unsurprising that most of these five tales aren’t simply about fantasy or magic (though of course these are present); like many fairytales they are implicitly advocating charitable attitudes and ethical behaviour — in short, common humanity.

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No power upon the hour

My 1918 Pocket Library edition of Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson: Fables
in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with other fables
Longmans, Green, and Co. 1918 (1896)

THE PENITENT
A man met a lad weeping. “what do you weep for?”
“I am weeping for my sins,” said the lad.
“You must have little to do,” said the man.
The next day they met again. Once more the lad was weeping. “Why do you weep now?” asked the man.
“I am weeping because I have nothing to eat,” said the lad.
“I thought it would come to that,” said the man.

First published bundled up with Jekyll and Hyde by Longmans, Green and Company two years after Stevenson’s death, and then together in a pocket edition in 1906, this collection of literary fables ought to be better known than they are. Some, like ‘The Penitent’, are short, barely a page or two long, while others run to almost a dozen sides. Some are enigmatic, others cynical, others yet are Aesopian in that they feature animals, as in ‘The Tadpole and the Frog’:

“Be ashamed of yourself,” said the frog. “When I was a tadpole, I had no tail.”
“Just what I thought!” said the tadpole. “You never were a tadpole.”

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