Celtic Fairy Tales and More Celtic Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs
Illustrated by John D. Batten
Publisher: Senate (Random House)
Pages: 552 (Paperback)
Form: Short Stories
Passed down through the centuries by generations of story-tellers Celtic folk tales have all the magic, excitement, humour and romance that any audience could wish for.
This collection combines two volumes of Celtic tales first chosen a hundred years ago by Joseph Jacobs, an authority on the folklore of the world. Determined to find the most authentic versions of local stories, he included only those which had been related by speakers of Scottish and Irish Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish. Now rewritten to appeal to the widest possible audience, they offer a wide-ranging cross-section of Celtic culture, from the Irish tragedy of Deidre to the Scottish ghost story of the Sprightly Tailor. Their variety is charmingly captured in the different styles of John Batten’s black-and-white illustrations.
A welcome reflection of the true heritage of Britain and Ireland, this delightful collection of forty-six tales will bring hours of pleasure to readers of all ages.
I actually read these stories in two different editions. I started with the Collector’s Library edition of Jacobs’ Celtic Fairy Tales before realising that they had cut all Jacob’s original annotations and end-notes. Purely by chance I then I discovered this rather dusty copy hiding in the spare bedroom, spotted that it had all those end-notes and also contained Jacob’s follow up More Celtic Fairy Tales, and did a bit of a book swap. The Collector’s Library edition is undoubtedly the more attractive book – this one is pretty old, has awkward page numbering that starts over again at 1 halfway through, and that annoying thing where illustrations are followed up by a blank page even in the middle of a story – but for me having access to Jacob’s notes on each story was more valuable than how pretty the book was. Sometimes in fact those notes were more interesting, and in several cases rather longer, than the stories they were about – though I didn’t always agree with some of his comments. Probably not something that matters to a lot of readers, but if you’re interested in the provenance of the fairy tales it’s def worth checking out if the edition you pick up contains these end-notes or not.
Now, onto the stories. As with most fairytale collections they’re a very mixed bag. A lot I had heard before, some I hadn’t and many many echoed very similar tales I had heard from other European traditions. Some are magical, some are mundane, some are funy, some are sad, some are preachy, and some are just plain weird. Most I liked, some I didn’t, but almost all of them were interesting in some way or another. One thing I will say though – these Celtic fairy tales are less likely to have happy endings than the ones most of us are used to and more likely to end with a bit of polyamory (though Jacobs’ very obviously changes at least one ending to avoid this – which I did not appreciate) . Also many of the names are damn near unpronounceable.
And there’s not really that much more to say. Taken out of the historical context of the 19th century fairytale revival and Jacobs’ role in that, it’s just a nice little book of slightly unusual fairytales – and not always told in the most accessible way. What really makes it special, apart from the notes on each tale is the illustrations. John D. Batten’s work is absolutely beautiful, utilising a variety different styles to match the tone of each story – so the tragic episodes taken from Irish mythology are given lovely almost Art-Nouveau plates while the sillier more humourous stories have simple, almost cartoonish illustrations.
My copy of this book isn’t a particularly good or quality printing, being just slightly more advanced than a bound photocopy of the two original publications (I hate that the page numbering restarts at 1 when you reach More Celtic Fairy Tales). But I can imagine an edition with the annoying format niggles ironed out and maybe a fancy hardcover, would make an absolutely beautiful addition to any library of fairy tales.