The Man of Letters in Fairyland: Andrew Lang

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An illustration from Lang’s Yellow Fairy Book (RB 4913)

Nineteenth-century Scottish writer Andrew Lang (1844-1912) could be described using various different labels: folklorist, anthropologist, historian, critic, poet, and translator. His name recurs in a variety of different Victorian periodicals and he was intensely prolific in his literary endeavours. As Stuart Kelly notes, by the time of Lang’s death his name could be found on almost 250 books and thousands of articles. It’s unfortunate that his work remains relatively unknown today. From his fairy stories to his anthropological treatises, his witty literary criticism to his explorations of psychical research, Lang’s output provides significant riches for twenty-first-century readers. This blog entry aims to highlight the variety of Lang material available in the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections.

Lang’s name was often associated with his fairy books series for children: a collection of twelve publications each named after a different colour. Lang drew together over 400 tales from numerous cultures, sharing the work of translation in bringing many formerly unknown stories to British audiences. Special Collections houses a beautiful 1906 edition of Lang’s  Yellow Fairy Bookfeaturing narratives such as ‘Thumbelina’ and ”The Crow’. The  tales are accompanied by delightful illustrations by H. J. Ford.

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‘In the Labyrinth of Despair’ (RB 4913)

In his preface, Lang explains to his child audience that: ‘As to whether there are really any fairies or not, that is a difficult question … The Editor never saw any himself, but he knows several people who have seen them – in the Highlands – and heard their music … For these reasons, the Editor thinks there are certainly fairies, but they never do anyone any harm; and, in England, they have been frightened away by smoke and schoolmasters.’

Lang’s claim that fairyfolk ‘never do anyone harm’ is belied by the stories themselves, in which fairies are mischievous, duplicitous, and even cruel. In ‘The Little Green Frog’, for example, a King who loves his wife but often treats her thoughtlessly is punished for his careless conduct when ‘the fairies caused [his wife] to die quite suddenly.’ It seems slightly unfair that the sins of the husband are visited upon the long-suffering wife! In other tales fairies kidnap children, cast enchantments, and trick unsuspecting youths.

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‘The witch-maiden sees the young man under a tree’ (RB 4913)

Although of course Lang didn’t actually believe in fairies, he remained relatively open-minded when it came to the supernatural. He condemned modern spiritualism as mainly a fraudulent copy of old phenomena, with ‘a few cheap and vulgar variations’: parlour tricks such as table-tapping and materialisation. Nonetheless, like many of his Victorian contemporaries, Lang was intrigued by the idea of psychical research. He expressed frustration at his fellow anthropologists and folklorists who took a high-handed rationalist view of such matters, instead championing supernatural phenomena as legitimate subjects of anthropological inquiry. Cock Lane and Common Sense explores these themes in detail, looking at witches, second sight, folklore, and ghosts. Lang was particularly interested in the fact that abnormal phenomena were not necessarily confined to ages of ignorance and superstition, or periods of religious crisis. Instead, he argues that: ‘The last forty enlightened years [1854-1894] give us more bogles than all the ages between St. Augustine and the Restoration.’ For Lang, the large body of respectable evidence concerning the supernatural suggested ‘a substratum of fact’, perhaps connected to ancient conjuring tricks, hallucinatory experience, or ‘disease of observation.’ The author maintains a diplomatic attitude throughout this book, stating that he has been ‘unable to reach a negative or affirmative conclusion’ about the supposed ‘reality’ of abnormal occurrences. Lang takes a similar stance in The Book of Dreams and Ghostswhich presents a huge range of supernatural encounters. Rather than trying to influence his readers, he allows them to draw their own conclusions, stating: ‘Where facts and experience, whether real or hallucinatory experience, end, where the mythopœic fancy comes in, readers may decide for themselves.’ Intriguingly, John Ferguson – owner of the collection in which these books are housed – is less than convinced by Lang’s seemingly open-minded stance. His pencilled notes at the back of the Cock Lane state that: ‘The author rather cleverly stoutly pleads for fair scientific investigation when he is laughing at the whole affair.’

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Front cover of The Book of Dreams and Ghosts (Ferguson Al-c.57)

Lang’s meditations on literature were also popular with Victorian readers. Various snippets and articles were published in nineteenth-century periodicals, and collected in works such as Books and Bookmen and Letters on Literature. The latter of these features a number of articles originally published in the New York Independent. Although the form and tone are very different from his children’s stories, Lang’s playful sense of humour shines through. He jocularly hails poetry as ‘a dame of the worthiest lineage’ who is no longer very popular, winning a ‘feigned respect, more out of courtesy than for liking.’ He argues that the recently-deceased societies dedicated to poets such as Browning, Shelley, and Wordsworth illustrate an unsettling truth: ‘that people have not the courage to study verse in solitude, and for their proper pleasure; men and women need confederates in the adventure.’ At times Lang seems somewhat pessimistic about the state of English poetry and literature in general. He states, for example, that ‘we have great poets living among us, but the fountains of their song are silent, or flow but rarely over a clogged and stony channel.’ But this pessimism is frequently countered by warmth, enthusiasm, and gentle humour. Moreover, as with his psychical texts, Lang often encourages readers to follow their own instincts, rather than adhering to widely-accepted cultural beliefs. Lang argues that attempting to ‘force an affection’ for certain authors is just as unnecessary as trying to cultivate a taste for olives or claret.He claims that: ‘No spectacle annoys [him] more than the sight of people who ask if it is “right” to take pleasure in this or that work of art. Their loves and hatred will never be genuine, natural, spontaneous.’

Whether you’re interested in history or anthropology, fairyfolk or fiction, the material housed in University of Glasgow’s Special Collections provides a fascinating snapshot of the work of Andrew Lang: a sadly neglected man of letters from the late Victorian era.

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A glimpse of ghostly texts in the Ferguson collection

Andrew Lang, The Yellow Fairy Book (Sp Coll RB 4913)

Andrew Lang, Cock Lane and Common Sense (Sp Coll Ferguson Al-d.72)

Andrew Lang, The Book of Dreams and Ghosts (Sp Coll Ferguson Al-c.57)

Andrew Lang, Books and Bookmen (Sp Coll Mu30-i.14)

Andrew Lang, Letters on Literature (Sp Coll BE1-y.24)

 

 



Categories: Library, Special Collections

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