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English Fairy Tales by Flora Anne Steel, illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

A Folkie Parent’s Guide to English Fairy Tales

Chloe Middleton-Metcalfe returns to the Tradfolk pages with a deep-dive into Children's folkie literature.

It is May 2022 and my friend is sitting in a hammock reading to her five-year-old son from a beautiful book, Breslin’s Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales (2012). They are both enthralled, and I am entranced, not only by the idyllic scene and the hope that one day my (then two-year-old) son might enjoy such intricate storytelling, but also by the handsome volume itself. I mentally add the book to my ever-growing wish list.

My children enjoying Johnathan Allen’s Chicken Licken (1999)

About a year later, at the Compton Verney gift shop, my one-year-old daughter was happily destroying multiple sets of artisanal earrings while I hastily purchased The Watkins Book of English Folktales edited by Neil Philip (2022, but first published as The Penguin Book of English Folktales, 1992). Despite Phillip Pullman’s ringing endorsement that collections of folk tales such as this should be, “given away free to every young teacher and new parent”, I found it difficult to envision the appeal of this non-illustrated, dense volume. Watkins features faithful replicas of the stories as first printed, dialect and all. Like the older Folk Tales of the British Isles (1985) this is a volume for curious adults, or perhaps the older teenager of an anorak persuasion. It is definitely not a book for young children. 

Some books are more for the adult market. 

And I began to wonder which fairy tales, or which versions, were collected (or written) in England? The list found in the generic collections of my own youth seems to be relatively short: ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, ‘Tom Thumb’ ‘Dick Whittington’, ‘Chicken Licken’, the ‘Three Little Pigs’ (Joseph Jacobs suggested these were originally goats, which explains the “hair on my chinny chin chin” refrain), and the ever popular ‘Goldilocks and The Three Bears’ (which had a disagreeable old woman supping milk in earlier incarnations). 

A fairytale has made it when the plot can support both a Ladybird book and an Orchard board game! 

Thus, the backdrop was painted for a quest that has devoured my free time and capital ever since. My mission was to find a book of English fairy (and folk) tales for children, a book that would present a different selection of stories from those chosen by Walt Disney and his heirs. Recommendations, though sought, were surprisingly few in forthcoming, and my journey has been regrettably haphazard. To prevent other parents from engaging in the same dangerous trend of speculative book buying, I wanted to share my discoveries. And so I present to you, “A Rough Guide to English Fairy Tale Collections”. 

A sample of the 60-odd books consulted for this article. 

Whilst Germany has the Brothers Grimm, France, Charles Perrault, and Denmark, Hans Christian Anderson, England has Joseph Jacobs. Jacobs authored English Fairy Tales (1890) and More English Fairy Tales (1894), re-writing stories to make them appealing to the children of his era. Jacobs’ two volumes (of 43 and 44 stories respectively) are illustrated haphazardly with small black and white illustrations, and eight or nine full-page pictures (in some 200 pages of text) by John Batten. As with most older books, it is probably worth skimming through the stories in advance to work out if you want to enrich your child with stories such as ‘Mr. Fox’, which contains lines such as, “the room was filled with bodies and skeletons of poor dead women, all stained with blood”. 

English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs illustrated by John Batten.

Jacobs was more than a little flexible with his concept of which countries constituted “England”, although I don’t think he went as far as some of his contemporaries who managed to eclipse the whole diverse British Isles under the English rubric. His volumes include, for example, ‘Jack and his Golden Snuffbox’ which was collected from John Roberts, a Welsh traveller, in the Romany language. Delving into the origins of all the stories collated in the volumes discussed here is not a project I currently have time for, so I am reliant upon the labelling given by the authors – a poor excuse, but I hope you will forgive me. 

More English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs illustrated by John Batten. 

To my mind, even more problematic than the provenance is the more banal matter of which edition to buy. Being out of copyright, Jacobs’ book is subject to the most tremendous liberties at the hands of print-on-demand publishers. My own sad-looking POD paperback arrived with an uninspiring front cover, cheap paper, and no illustrations whatsoever. There appears to have been only one combined edition ever published, and that was with illustrations by Margery Gill (Bodley Head, 1968). Cheap Puffin editions (1972, 1994) with Gill’s black and white illustrations are easily obtainable. My 1994 edition has 31 tales drawn from both of Jacobs’ volumes and it omits the more bloody yarns. There is no cannibalistic ‘Rose Tree’ with the eerie “stick stock stone dead” refrain (as hauntingly put to music by Emily Portman in 2010). Although I miss Batten’s full-page illustrations, this is the edition that I would buy as a 7th birthday present to my Godchildren. Also available is a version illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, his incomplete English Fairy Tales from the Collection of Joseph Jacobs was published posthumously in 1980. The 12 stories only have one or two black and white illustrations each, and the volume lacks the vivacity of, for example, Little Green Train (a current household favourite).

English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs illustrated by Margery Gill.

Another antique volume worth visiting is Flora Annie Steel’s English Fairy Tales (1918). This has two things to commend it. Firstly, Arthur Rackham provided 16 colour plates and many (black and white) illustrations, and secondly, high-quality re-prints are easily available (my own is Macmillan, 2016). My gut impression is that this is a book to read aloud to older children (7+), who would be able to cope without having one coloured illustration per page. With over 40 stories to cram in, the text is dense. Rackham’s illustrations are the saving grace, and even these are not overly plentiful. Without his artistic hand, I would have gently put this volume (alongside Edwin Sidney-Hartland’s English Fairy and Folk Tales, and Ernest Rhys’s Fairy Gold: A Book of Old English Fairy Tales) in the not-for-modern-children pile. 

English Fairy Tales by Flora Anne Steel, illustrated by Arthur Rackham. 

Moving into the latter half of the 20th century, I can recommend Alan Garner’s A Bag of Moonshine (1986). This is a lively re-telling of traditional British folk and fairy tales, compiled with a juvenile market in mind and I would say that it is appropriate for reading aloud with children aged five and over. Garner’s Collected Folk Tales (2011), appeared regularly throughout my quest, alongside the misleading tagline, “essential reading for young and old alike”, but it is Garner’s earlier publication that I think will appeal to younger sensibilities. It is illustrated by P.J. Lynch, who is one of my all-time favourite children’s artists, and the generic collection he illustrated in the 1990s (Sarah Hayes’ Candlewick Book of Fairytales) can be recommended in its own right. A Bag of Moonshine features one black-and-white illustration on practically every page in either Lynch’s engaging pencil style or simple silhouettes. The 22 stories themselves are defiantly non-standard and have been selected from a variety of regional collections. 

Alan Garner’s A Bag of Moonshine, illustrated by P.J.Lynch.

A more recent volume is Rosalind Kerven’s English Fairy Tales and Legends (first published by the National Trust in 2008). I remember seeing Alice Pattullo’s bright and cheerful cover on the Batsford edition in the window of Winstone’s independent bookshop in Sidmouth when it was released in 2019. Kerven is a veteran author, with a well-honed approach for re-writing traditional tales. Sadly, the publication budget of the new edition does not appear to have extended as far as getting Pattullo to illustrate the whole book, which would have made it my number one choice. Instead, the 15 stories, plucked from collections across the country, are illustrated with early 20th century paintings plucked willy-nilly from an image library. I suppose such efforts are better than nothing, but still, such copy-and-paste design pales in comparison with specially commissioned illustrations. 

English Fairy Tales and Legends by Rosalind Kerven, pictures supplied by the Mary Evans Picture Library.

Another choice for older children (7+) is Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Between Worlds: Folktales of Britain & Ireland (2018), with black-and-white woodcut-style illustrations by Frances Castle. Crossley-Holland is a well-respected author and I mentioned his re-telling of a medieval myth, Green Children, in a previous Tradfolk article (folk Music, books and screen time for babies and toddlers). Between Worlds was initially published in 1987 under the title, British Folk Tales: New Versions, with teenie-tiny black and white header drawings by Peter Melnyczuk, and detailed source notes at the back. A spin-off from this is three small, colourful, publications: Boo!, Small-Tooth Dog, and Dathera Dad! (1988). These three slender books contain colour illustrations by Melnyczuk, which make them attractive for younger children (5+) with the usual parental discretion as to when you would like to introduce ghosts and graveyards into your child’s life. 

Boo!, Small-Tooth  Dog, and Dathera Dad!  By Kevin Crossley-Holland, illustrated by Peter Melnyczuk.

I’m not sure why I was surprised when the name James Reeves popped up. Reeves was a well-respected children’s author, but I had only heard of him through his contribution to English folk music scholarship (The Idiom of the People, 1958). When a friend lent me English Fables and Fairy Stories (1954), I was delighted with the quality of his retellings. Reeves died in 1978 and Oxford University Press has made the most of his back-catalogue, regularly re-issuing this book under new titles, including Fairy Tales from England (1999), and Stories from England: Oxford Children’s Myths and Legends (2013). My copy (1997) has a few (black and white) illustrations by Joan Kiddell-Monroe, which in my mind puts the age appropriateness in the 7+ category.  

English Fables and Fairy Stories by James Reeves illustrated by Joan Kiddell-Monroe.

The History Press have done a sterling job in creating a “Folk Tales for Children” series. There are currently 30 titles and many English counties/regions have their own volume, including Cambridge, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Essex, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Lakeland, Leicestershire, Norfolk, Shropshire, Somerset, Sussex, Tyne and Wear, and Yorkshire. London alone has two volumes! My current regions of affiliation are not yet represented, so I purchased a volume, based principally on the cover art, to test drive the series. All the volumes have different authors, most of whom are professional oral storytellers, and I am uncertain how similar the formatting is between volumes. Lakeland Folk Tales for Children (2016) by Taffy Thomas contains 20 lively retellings of localised stories, with one black-and-white illustration by Steven Gregg per story, putting it firmly in the 7+ territory. 

Lakeland Folk Tales for Children by Taffy Thomas, illustrations by Steven Gregg.

While we’re on a virtual tour of the country, it’s worth mentioning Eric Quayle’s The little People’s Pageant of Cornish Legends (1986). I enjoyed the retelling of 19th century collected stories, but it is the illustrations that really set this volume aside. This book is packed with Michael Foreman’s watercolours (in black-and-white and colour) on nearly every page which are a delight to behold, and might be able to hold the attention of the studious younger child (5+). 

 Eric Quayle’s The Little People’s Pageant of Cornish Legends illustrated by Michael Foreman.

Britannia: Great Stories from British History (1999) has been my only (gratefully received) recommendation. Geraldine McCaughrean has re-written 100 short stories from Britain’s historical and mythical past. So Gogmagog, the Padstow ‘Oss, and Dick Whittington sit alongside King Alfred, Hereford the Wake, and The Princes in the Tower. There are bright, watercolour-esque illustrations by Richard Brassey on every page and all the stories have a short section detailing their provenance. I’ve had mixed success so far reading these stories to my three-year-old. While he enjoyed ‘Gogmagog and the Exiles of Troy’, the ‘Three Plague’s of Lud’s Town’, with its devilish Coranieid, were a step too far, and Britania had to be hastily abandoned in favour of Peter in Blueberry Land. So, I have cause to give this book a cautious 3+ rating (for reading out loud). 

Geraldine McCaughrean’s Britannia: Great Stories from British History illustrated by Richard Brassey.

Thanks to Dame Marina Warner, I have ended my quest with a new appreciation of storytelling. As an alternative to harmful conspiracy theories, she suggested that, “we could re-enchant places and landscapes with stories,” because, “the metaphorical imaginary state, the symbolic state, is a happy place to be, you don’t have to take it literally” (The Holy Blood, BBC Radio 4, 26.8.2023). In terms of suitability for such a mission, it would be hard to find a better hero than the humble fairy story. On a personal level, I have completed my quest with a newfound knowledge of some of the curious traditional stories from in (and around) my own country which hardly ever make it into generic fairytale collections, stories with which I hope to enchant the landscape of my own progenies’ imagination. 

Another successful English fairy tale: ‘The Three Little Pigs’.

Photos throughout this article come courtesy of the author.