Sunday, March 29, 2009

Ruth Manning-Sanders, revisited

I'm currently reading Folk and Fairy Tales, as retold by Ruth Manning-Sanders. Right through infants, primary and high school I can remember reading books of fairy tales retold by her: she was a prolific reteller of other people's stories. Check out the selected bibliography of her works on Wikipedia - and it's just a selected bibliography! - including such curios as A Book of Magic Horses. I lost touch with Ruth there for a while, but I'm glad to have got this book of Folk and Fairy Tales from the Flinders Street bookstore. She comes across as an affectionate aunt - a little prim and proper, but never trying to educate her readers. Unlike other writers - say, Thurber or Kipling - she never looks for the 'moral of the story'. In the introduction she writes:

It is the prime requisite of the fairy tale that it should end happily. I remember as a small girl hurling the book I had been reading across the floor in a rage, because the heroine, instead of marrying the hero and living happily ever after, just went and died. A thing she had no right to do.

Manning-Sanders is the sort of person who, when writing about Hansel and Gretel would have the cranky old witch crawl out of the oven again after her heroes have escaped. When writing about Little Red Riding Hood, she'll end with the kindly woodsman opening up the wolf's stomach, and letting grandma leap out again, none the worse for her experience. She'd save the wolf's life, too, if she could. At the end of the fifth story in this current anthology, she recounts something very like this:

'Ah, but I will show you something still more wonderful,' said the prince. And he waved his rusty sword and ordered it to cut off every head except the king's head and his own.
The sword clanged. There lay the army: heads in one place, bodies in another.... And he took the whistle out of his pocket. 'Heads on shoulders again,' said he. And he blew the whistle.
Then every soldier's head leaped on to its body again, and the whole army stood up, alive and well.... Nor did the king ever find fault with him again. Indeed, the king was now rather afraid of his son; though of course he did his best not to show it.

Now that's the sort of happy ending that Manning-Sanders did allow. As you can see, her definition of 'happy' ending is somewhat generous!

I never quite warmed to the pictures in Manning-Sanders' books, by Robin Jacques, in the same ways as I warmed to the stories. The pictures always seem to be slightly too statuesque: the devils always have ridiculous ears, the gnomes always have warts on their noses, the beautiful princesses look slightly too young, and the noble princes always look slightly too muscular. I like the attention to detail, though it often seems to be attention to the wrong detail. I get the feeling with his pictures that, instead of looking into the 'once-upon-a-time' world of fairy stories, I'm looking into the world of the 1950s and 60s, when garden gnomes, and cute and kitsch images of fairies proliferated. Then again, I like the pictures being there; it seems to me right that a book of folk and fairy tales should have sketches like this.

Of course, I love folk stories and myths, and have several copies of the same, by various authors and retellers, on my shelves. So perhaps I'm not an objective reviewer of Manning-Sanders' work.


Ampersand Duck said...

Isn't that interesting... I was /am an avid reader of RMS dating back to my preschool days, and while I love her writing, it's the Robin Jacques images that attract me to the books. I loved his take on her stories, and the ridiculous ears and noses. I love the linear way he draws, the elaborate hair-dos and the facial expressions: he does great 'ugly'!

TimT said...

Yes, the drawings themselves are exquisitely detailed and styled... but even as a kid I don't think I warmed to the pictures completely. I don't think I could ever quite believe the goblins and dragons and pixies. Maybe they looked too friendly? Not sure.

Ampersand Duck said...

Maybe not enough colour? Black & white can be very chilly... Maybe touches of vermillion would help you warm to them.

TimT said...

No, I love black and white (hence the numerous black-and-white illustrations in the zine). This one I'm reading now in fact has a mixture of black-and-white pictures, and coloured, the sort that have a few primary colours on the page mixed together in patterns so as to suggest the full chromatic spectrum (if that makes sense). I like that effect - both economical and rich. (I think it appears in a lot of old books, maybe because the way they printed it, they found it easier/more efficient/cheaper to do so??)

For me it came down to the way the characters looked. I didn't believe that demons or fairies or elves did look like that. I didn't identify with the princes, I thought they looked much too old (that was one of my readerly prejudices - I guess I always thought the princes in the stories were boys like me). Here's an example of what I mean, it's in my book.

But I think I have been unfair on Jacques, because going through some of the pictures on this website, I agree, his illustrations can be fantastic.

lucy tartan said...

I had never heard of RMS before, but there are Robin Jacques drawings in the old Faber copy of Hans Christian Andersen tales that I've been reading since i was about nine, and I'v always loved them.

Anonymous said...

Very nice post. As the primary author of Manning-Sanders' Wikipedia biography and someone who continues to research her life and books (my collection is around 50), I am always interested to hear about people's memories and opinions of her fairy-tale books. I discovered her in a small-town library in northcentral Pennsylvania when I was a child, and she so stuck with me over the years that I was inspired to start researching her in my 30s. For the record, I love Jacques' illustrations and can't imagine her books without them. Her volumes with other illustrators just don't have the same feel for me (though some of those illustrators are extremely good).

TimT said...

That sounds extremely cool anon. 50 books, you say? I've got 48 to go to reach you!

I'd be interested to see some of her poetry. I'd have her placed in the Walter de la Mare/Charles Causley school, but it's a little hard to tell from the story anthologies.

Anonymous said...

I came across this blog when searching for old RMS books. I just remembered getting every single one from the library when I was a little girl and devouring them. Now I want my little daughter to discover them too and am looking for the old editions with illustrations as I remember them.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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