Andrew Lang and the colors of imagination

The name of Scottish writer and anthropologist Andrew Lang is one that I didn’t at first recognize while working on the Grand List, although I encountered his work as a child. Although he’s not to be found in Appendix N, he does make an entry in the green Ballantine column, as coauthor of The World’s Desire.

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Happily, both Kindle and physical copies of many of Lang’s more popular books are still available for purchase (see Amazon, in particular). Somewhat less happily and a bit ironically, although he was a literary critic and author in his own right, today he’s best known for the story collections he compiled (perhaps akin to Lin Carter in that regard). I’m not entirely sure he would be displeased by this, however.

Lang was a passionate lover of mythology, folklore, and fairy tale. Over the course of 20+ years, he sought out and compiled such stories from all over the world and divided them into “Fairy Books” of various colors. The first entry, the Blue Fairy Book, was published in 1889 and contained classic tales from the Brothers Grimm, stories from the Arabian Nights, the Lilliputian segment of Gulliver’s Travels, and more.

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The geographical and cultural range to be found in Lang’s books was great indeed. His Violet Fairy Book (1901), for example, collected stories from Japan, Serbia, parts of Africa, and Russia, among other places.

In addition to the core twelve “colored” fairy tale books, he put together thirteen other volumes such as the Animal Story Book, the Book of Princes and Princesses, the Book of Romance, and the Strange Story Book.

I personally have a soft spot for Lang. When I was a young boy, my father used to read to me before bed (my mother would substitute in a pinch). I’m sure there were many books and stories, but the ones that stand out most in my memory are the scattered Fairy Books of Lang and various Frank Baum Oz books that my dad would search for at nearby libraries. I have little doubt that my parent’s cultivation of my imagination through myth and fairy tale has contributed in large part to my love of SFF.

My fiance and I talk of one day having our own home library, and I already have Lang’s work marked for our shelves.

-Bushi

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4 thoughts on “Andrew Lang and the colors of imagination

  1. The first time I heard of Lang was from Tolkien complaining that he was putting stories that clearly weren’t fairy tales in his Books of Fairies and needed to get the hell off his lawn, or something.

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    1. Haha yeah, doesn’t surprise me. It’s been years since I’ve explored any of the Fairy books, but I know some of them do indeed feature true “heroic” stories, like those of Joan of Arc, Hannibal, Napoleon, etc. The more I learn of Tolkien, the more I imagine him to have been a cranky old curmudgeon. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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      1. His On Fairy Stories was like the mid-20th century version of two dozen blogposts on trying to define what the OSR is. “Talking animals aren’t fairy stories, they’re beast fables, which are completely different, and most certainly should not be called fairy stories! Harrumph!”

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      2. Interesting. I need to read more of these guys’ essays and literary analysis. I recently ordered Lewis’ “Of This and Other Worlds,” which will be arriving sometime this month (had to ship from the UK). I’m looking forward to checking it out. In the meantime, I see Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories is available online as a free pdf…!

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