English Fairy Tales (Joseph Jacobs)

Week 12: England - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Background Reading

If you did the Indian Tales earlier this semester, you have already read something about the work and career of Joseph Jacobs. He was a slightly younger contemporary of Andrew Lang (Arabian Nights, Japanese Tales, African Tales, Danish Tales, Estonian Tales), and like Lang he was a prolific collector and publisher of folktales from around the world. Jacobs was born in 1854 in Australia but he grew up in England, where he became famous as a scholar and folklorist. One of his most significant roles was serving as the editor of the journal Folklore, which was the main periodical dedicated to the publication of original folklore materials and sources.

After living in England for most of his life, Jacobs then moved to America where he was an editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia. He also taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Jacobs died in 1916. Much of Jacobs' research and publications centered on Jewish contributions to world culture; he was one of the first scholars to call attention to the importance of Jewish transmission of Aesopic fables in the ancient world and in the European Middle Ages.

Like Lang, Jacobs retold the folktales and stories he collected in a style that he thought would be suitable for Victorian children. Unlike Lang, however, Jacobs published scholarly notes to accompany his collections of fairy tales, exploring the comparative and historical aspects of the stories and providing detailed information about his sources. Like the Brothers Grimm, Jacobs was very interested in the ways in which folklore could provide information about popular culture and distinctive national traditions.

In the Preface to his collection of English fairy tales, Jacobs declared that his purpose was to collect and publish the traditional tales of the "English folk." He considered this book to be a first attempt at a larger effort that would document English fairy tales as thoroughly as the fairy tales of Germany, France and Italy had been documented.

WHO says that English folk have no fairy tales of their own? The present volume contains only a selection out of some 140, of which I have found traces in this country. It is probable that many more exist. A quarter of the tales in this volume have been collected during the last ten years or so, and some of them have not been hitherto published. Up to 1870, it was said equally of France and of Italy, that they possessed no folk-tales. Yet, within fifteen years from that date, over 1000 tales had been collected in each country. I am hoping that the present volume may lead to equal activity in this country, and would earnestly beg any reader of this book who knows of similar tales, to communicate them, written down as they are told, to me, care of the Publishers.

In the Notes at the back of the book, Jacobs complained that the German and French fairy tales were actually starting to displace the good old English fairy. As a result, it was all the more important to get the English fairy tales into print, so that they could compete with the works published by the Brothers Grimm, Perrault's French fairy tales, and so on:

THE Fairy Tales of England have been treated in rather a step-motherly fashion. [...] But in the middle of last century the genius of Charles Perrault captivated English and Scotch children with as much force as or, probably, with even more force than he had entranced French ones. Cinderella and Puss in Boots and their companions ousted Childe Rowland and Mr Fox and Catskin. The superior elegance and clearness of the French tales replaced the rude vigour of the English ones. What Perrault began, the Grimms completed. Tom Tit Tot gave way to Rumpelstiltschen, the Three Sillies to Hansel and Grethel, and the English Fairy Tale became a mélange confus of Perrault and the Grimms.

Yet at the same time that the English were lagging behind in the collecting of their fairy tales, Jacobs also realized that the rapid pace of industrialization in England was causing traditional stories to disappear even more rapidly than in France or Germany or Italy (Notes):

This would not have been so serious if English provincial life had been as conservative and tenacious as the provincial life of France, Italy, or Germany. But railways and the telegraph have disintegrated our provincial life much more than continental.

Jacobs dedicated enormous energy to collecting and promoting these English fairy tales. He worked primarily from printed sources, and scoured the country for obscure publications in which stories could be found. He was especially interested in stories that had been preserved in the form of traditional ballads (like the Robin Hood ballads that you may have read a few weeks ago).

Yet at the same time that Jacobs dedicated much of his professional life to collecting these stories, he treated the stories - and the storytellers - with a kind of scholarly condescension. The stories belonged to what he called "nursery literature," and the storytellers were "dumb." Jacobs does not mean that the storytellers were stupid. Instead he means that they were deprived of the power of speech - of written speech, that is. Traditional storytellers obviously had abundant powers of speech (Jacobs calls them "eloquent"), but they generally did not know how to write. In Jacobs' academic way of thinking, the fact that the storytellers were illiterate rendered them "dumb" (Preface):

The only reason, I imagine, why such tales have not hitherto been brought to light, is the lamentable gap between the governing and recording classes and the dumb working classes of this country--dumb to others but eloquent among themselves. It would be no unpatriotic task to help to bridge over this gulf, by giving a common fund of nursery literature to all classes of the English people, and, in any case, it can do no harm to add to the innocent gaiety of the nation.

By classing these stories with the "innocent gaiety" of the folk, Jacobs pushes the stories closer and closer into the realm of children's literature. Jacobs even justifies his use of the awkward term "fairy tale" because this is a term preferred by the children themselves (Preface):

A word or two as to our title seems necessary. We have called our stories Fairy Tales though few of them speak of fairies. The same remark applies to the collection of the Brothers Grimm and to all the other European collections, which contain exactly the same classes of tales as ours. Yet our stories are what the little ones mean when they clamour for 'Fairy Tales', and this is the only name which they give to them. One cannot imagine a child saying, 'Tell us a folk-tale, nurse', or 'Another nursery tale, please, grandma'. As our book is intended for the little ones, we have indicated its contents by the name they use.

I guess we are lucky that Jacobs did not assume that he should reproduce the lisping of a small child, and publish a book of "Faiwy Tales"!

It is worth noting also that fairy tales are especially associated not just with children, but also with women - the children are clamoring for fairy tales from their grandmothers, and from their nurses. These are tales of the folks but - more particularly - "old wives' tales."

Jacobs then goes on to explain how he applies the term fairy tale to stories in which there are no fairies to be found (Preface):

The words 'Fairy Tales' must accordingly be taken to include tales in which occurs something 'fairy', something extraordinary--fairies, giants, dwarfs, speaking animals.

All of the stories that you will read this week do contain some element of the supernatural or extraordinary. Sometimes this takes the form of outright magic, while in other cases, the stories rely on those kinds of coincidences that are not impossible but so improbable that they seem supernatural (such as the way Dick Whittington makes a fortune by the possession of a single cat).

Finally, it is important to note that while Jacobs was collecting "English" fairy tales, he fully recognized the parallels between many of these stories and other European fairy tales. In fact, Jacobs went even further. He was part of a scholarly contingent that believed a large portion of European fairy tale tradition was derived from the fairy tales of ancient India which had passed, via Sanskrit and Persian and Arabic and Hebrew into Latin and also into the vernacular languages of Europe (Notes):

From a quarter to a third of the story store of any European country has been derived from abroad, and is in most cases shared by all Europe. [...] Of the origin of English folk-tales this is not the place to speak at any length. So far as they are common with other European folk-tales, I see no reason for doubting that they all had a common origin. I have given reason in the introduction to the notes of my Indian Fairy Tales in this series for believing that the source of that international nucleus of the European folk-tales is India. But for each country there remains a residuum peculiar to that country--e.g. for England, Jack and the Beanstalk or Childe Rowland, and there is no reason to doubt that these are artistic products of the folk-fancy of some Englishman.

Of course, even though Jacobs was quick to associate fairy tales with nurses and grandmothers, he doesn't speculate that these stories are the artistic products of the folk-fancy of some English woman.

So, like all scholars at all times, Jacobs was very much the product of his times - in this case, late Victorian England. He was torn between a deep interest in folktales and popular tradition, while at the same time disparaging those traditions as simplistic and unsophisticated, closely associated with children, women, and the "dumb" working classes. This is a trap from which folklore studies still have not emerged: if you go into any bookstore in America today, you will be lucky to find a folklore section at all - but if you go to the children's section of the store, you will find shelf after shelf after shelf of wonderful folktale collections. In fact, that is where you will find Jacobs' English Fairy Tales, reprinted in the "Children's Classics" series of the Everyman Library. Luckily, you can also find Joseph Jacobs online at Sacred Texts Archive, which has published online editions of his wonderful books: English Fairy Tales, More English Fairy Tales, Celtic Fairy Tales and More Celtic Fairy Tales.

So, is this children's literature? Or are these sacred texts? That is a question you can ponder this week, while you read some stories that are surely familiar to you - along with some stories you have perhaps never heard before.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM