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Trysting Genres: Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tale Methodologies

  • Molly Clark Hillard

…plus d’informations

  • Molly Clark Hillard
    Seattle University

When Thomas Hardy died in 1928, it was without having forgiven Andrew Lang for his reviews of Tess of the d’Urbervilles; in The Daily News, Lang accused Hardy of “Tessimism” (qtd. in Millgate 295). In The New Review, he exclaimed, “If there be a God, who can seriously think of Him as a malicious fiend?” (248). If Hardy had cause for hurt feelings, though, so had Lang; his invective against Tess may have been especially sharp in remembrance of another literary text of Hardy’s, “Tryst at an Ancient Earthwork” (1885). In this deceptively simple short story, first published in The Detroit Post (1885) and the English Illustrated Magazine (1893), and later collected in A Changed Man and Other Tales (1913), Hardy appears to caricature and critique, if not Lang himself, then at least the mode of scholarship and media production practiced by Lang and his circle.

In “Tryst,” the narrator meets his “antiquarian” friend in the dead of night atop “Mai-dun,” an ancient motte-and-bailey fort. Defying signs that forbid excavation, the antiquary digs into the tumulus in order to “uncover, to search, to verify a theory or displace it, and to cover it up again” (180). After excavating several Roman treasures, including a small statue of Mercury, the antiquary appears to rebury the items. However, the narrator, whose “contribution to the labor is that of directing the light constantly upon the hole” (180), fancies that he sees his friend slip something into his pocket. This suspicion is borne out years later, when the statue is found among his friend’s effects upon his death. The antiquary had indeed looted it from the site of excavation.

At first reading, Hardy’s story appears to critique not just the actions of the antiquary but also, by extension, the very nature of his investigative project. The narrator describes the antiquary’s nocturnal act of exhumation, which the latter justifies in the name of academic curiosity, in terms of both grave robbery and rape. “Mai-Dun” is modeled after Maiden Castle in Dorset, and Hardy’s collector rummages around inside this “maiden” fortress in explicitly sexual terms; every treasure brought from the earth “draws luxuriant groans of sensibility from the digger” (181), and when he inhumes the treasures once more, “each deposition seems to cost him a twinge” (183). We might conclude that the entire excavation, shadowed by dark lantern and signaled by a furtive hand in the pocket, is figured as a selfish and useless exhumation of the past. It is worth noting here that “rape” derives from “rapio,” to capture or take; thus excavation and rape are etymologically analogous, too. The antiquary’s discovery, hoarded to himself, its secret dying with him, is valuable only because “it proves all the world to be wrong in this great argument, and himself alone to be right!” (183). Even the physical appearance of this man is ridiculous and antiquated: “he is a man about 60, small in figure, with grey old-fashioned whiskers cut to the shape of a pair of crumb-brushes” (179). This story caricatures a mode of study—antiquarianism, which by the late nineteenth century had come to be known as folklore—an emerging field in which, as my essay will show, Lang was situated as a vital contributor. If Lang was familiar with Hardy’s unflattering depiction of antiquarian and/or folklore collectors, he might be forgiven for revenging himself upon Hardy’s “Tessimism.”

And yet, for all its critique of folklorists as plunderers, Hardy’s tale reveals his antiquary thief and his narrator (who may or may not be Hardy himself) in uneasy collusion. In choosing the word “tryst” for his title, Hardy connotes a number of furtive liaisons that occur in the story; between past and present, certainly, but also between collector and author, and between antiquarian and narrative exploits. Perhaps most importantly, then, a “tryst” describes the very story Hardy himself designed; it is a sexualized encounter between archaic materials and their modern investigator. As the narrator climbs the earthworks, he reveals the same longing to reconstruct the past as the antiquary; he imagines the fortress repopulated with the armies that built it: “Past and present have become so confusedly mingled under the associations of the spot,” the narrator says, “that for a time it has escaped my memory that this mound was the place agreed on for the aforesaid appointment” (179). During the excavation, the narrator waivers between dismayed distance from the antiquary and collusive “luxuriant groans” as he himself helps the antiquary disrobe the hill: “[i]t is strange indeed that by merely peeling off a wrapper of modern accumulations we have lowered ourselves into an ancient world” (182). From one angle, Hardy’s story might appear to suggest that the narrator, holding the light “constantly on the hole,” illuminates the scurrilous nature of antiquarian desires; yet what it actually suggests is that this apparently critical literary observer is implicated in exhumations of his own.

The narrative is constructed in present tense until the last few sentences of the story, which, like the rest of the tale, is offered in the first-person voice of the unnamed narrator:

Walking along quickly to restore warmth I muse upon my eccentric friend [the antiquary], and cannot help asking myself this question: Did he really replace the gilded image of the god Mercurius with the rest of the treasures? He seemed to do so; and yet I could not testify to the fact. Probably, however, he was as good as his word.

It was thus I spoke to myself, and so the adventure ended. But one thing remains to be told, and that is concerned with seven years after.


The immediacy of the first-person present tense is given the lie at the end of the story, when we recognize that this narrative is, in fact, retrospective: “seven years” have passed since the events related here. Though the narrator observes the sign which reads “Caution: Any Person found removing Relics, Skeletons, Stones, Pottery, Tiles, or other Material from this Earthwork, or cutting up the Ground, will be Prosecuted as the law directs” (174), and though he admonishes his friend “we must re-bury them all” (179), this temporal remove indicates that the narrator himself is guilty of removing “other Material” from the site. This material comes in the form of the story itself; the narrator survives to publish this account of his friend’s findings, presumably to gain financially from it. That Hardy’s text plays with the forms of both fictional short story and antiquarian manuscript only further complicates this autoreferential gesture. Hardy insisted, for instance, that the story be published with photographs of Maiden Castle to mimic the verisimilitude of an ethnographic account.

All in all, this short story, with its meditation upon theft, lucre, and retrospection, models a common way of thinking and debating about creativity in the late nineteenth century; on the one hand it sets up a morally-charged opposition between the collector (as thief) and the literary artist (as creator), but on the other it recognizes that such an opposition cannot be sustained. Instead, literary authors and folklore collectors were revealed again and again to be mutually engaged in the same labor—that is, both creating and compiling national narratives. This essay begins with Hardy’s fictional account of a “trysting” between literary artist and collector in order to exemplify both the interpenetrated nature of late-Victorian disciplines—where fiction-writing, folklore, and anthropology intertwine—and the ambivalence with which authors regarded such entanglements. The real-life feud between Hardy and Lang is one example of the much larger conversation about book production, and about writing itself, taking place in the 1880s and ’90s. Placed centrally within this conversation, Andrew Lang offers an example of an alternate model to the cult of the solo literary genius that occupied so much of the Victorian literary landscape, a model defined by collaboration and coterie production that troubles the rigidities of discipline and genre.

All authorship is, of course, a collective endeavor between forms and across time. Perhaps for Hardy the little statue of the mythical god Mercury is a sign that highlights the “trysting” of fiction writer and folklorist—after all, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the “finger of Mercury” referred to a signpost. In legend, the messenger god Mercury is the protector of both traders and thieves, blurring the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate exchange. Indeed, he is sometimes depicted holding a purse, in allusion to his business functions. And “mercury” is a seventeenth-century term for a hawker of pamphlets and broadsheets. These meanings combine to make Mercury an apt figure for the fiction writer and collector alike, both traders in words in the Victorian literary marketplace.

Andrew Lang was, as Nathan K. Hensley notes in his introduction, a “central node whose shaping influence extended into every corner of the cultural marketplace and across any number of what are now separate disciplines”. A student of Classics at Oxford, Lang was one of the founders of the Folklore Society, and was active in anthropological research. He was an important journalist and literary critic of the day, as indicated by his column “At the Sign of the Ship,” which ran in Longman’s Magazine from 1885-1905. But while Lang’s entire oeuvre is important, I am most interested in his work on the fairy tale. For me, Lang is one practitioner of a kind of discourse generated in the wake of the Victorian fairy tale surge—that is, the widespread incorporation of fairy tales into other Victorian literary and cultural forms dating from the middle of the Victorian era. Hardy’s story, of course, is not a fairy tale in form or theme. Yet like Victorian fairy tales, its characters (an antiquary and an “author/narrator”) and its central action (the appropriation of buried treasure in the form of a miniature, fantastic figure) allegorize contemporary discourse about literary production—discussions like the copyright debates, the plagiarism debates, and the ongoing conversation about whether social science writing was or was not a kind of creative work. Lang’s treatment of the fairy tale places him at the end of this century-long conversation about the nature of originality. This essay considers how Lang’s position at the center of multiple, linked networks is intimately related to his play with the fairy tale, arguably the most “networked” of forms. Lang’s own interdisciplinarity can help us to understand the hybridizing work of the fairy tale: namely how its language, figures, structure, methods of production, and multiple authors reappear in other forms of cultural production.

Given his investment in nearly every kind of literary and social science venture at the turn of the century, Lang might be surprised to know that he remains best known today for his collections of fairy tales. His extended introductions to Margaret Hunt’s edition of Grimm’s Household Tales (1884), Perrault’s Popular Tales (1888), Marian Roalfe Cox’s comparative study of Cinderella (1893), and Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1893) are still cited by contemporary folklorists and anthropologists as the groundbreaking work validating fairy tale study as a serious academic discipline. But it was Lang’s “Color[ed] Fairy Books,” written between 1889 and 1910, that captured popular attention. Capitalizing on the British fascination with the fairy tale, these twelve books were styled and marketed for children. However, in spite of their frankly commercial nature and self-consciously modest presentation, they are more important to late-century culture than even Lang himself deemed them to be. The Color Fairy Books include contributions from a small team of amateur and professional folklorists (including Lang’s wife Leonora), as well as Lang’s translations of tales already in print. At the same time, all are retold in Lang’s own literary style. The books exemplify coterie production, a trysting of genres and authors.

The “tale” is an eminently flexible thing. Because they could be found in virtually every genre of Victorian literary and visual art, fairy tales offer both an example of and metaphor for the networking of late-Victorian disciplines, and call into question our contemporary notion of “disciplinarity” itself. The print history of the fairy tale and legend collection is situated in the negotiation between and eventual consolidation of antiquarianism and folklore studies. Richard Dorson tells us that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antiquaries, whose characteristic local histories included both broad studies of regional material culture and local folk traditions, first established the popularity of the field that would come to be called folklore. From the first, antiquarian collection delighted in the remains of Roman material culture found on English soil, glorying in England’s association with that advanced culture. However, scholars questing for tangible “remains” also searched for evidence of a uniquely English past. [1] Antiquarian studies are miscellanies; they combine descriptions and illustrated reproductions of material artifact, but also descriptions of regional territory, parish records, local superstitions, legends (including ghost and fairy stories), and song. In 1718 the Society of Antiquities was founded; publications like Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and John Brand’s Popular Antiquities (1777) signaled a shift in antiquarian studies toward a wider audience, to the extent that Brand claimed in his preface: “The English antique has become a general and fashionable study” (xiii). This popularity was materially assisted by the printing societies of the 1830s, which published and disseminated antiquarian manuscripts. [2] James Paradis suggests that “antiquarian projects provided a means of colonizing the past. Aestheticizing the past by celebrating its mystery and beauty opened its artifacts to new cultural uses and interpretations” (127). Whether producing an antiquarian record of the English Southwest or of Egypt, in other words, antiquarian practices sought to frame an interpretation of national identity through gathering up “fragments,” “remains,” or “relics” of a seemingly departed past, which, be it quaint or grand, barbaric or civilized, was removed from the collector and the reader by the very medium of print as well as the passage of time. Antiquarian publications may have described and advocated antiquarian study as an amateur, leisured pursuit, but antiquarian writers themselves made successful livings through the sales of their books.

When William John Thoms coined the term “folk-lore” in 1846 he called it a “good Saxon compound” (qtd. in Dorson 81). He proposed that the term replace “popular antiquities,” thus advocating a Germanic rather than Latinate root to describe this national study. This “compound,” I would suggest, also connotes a sort of cleansing: to scrub away the taint, in William Camden’s words, of “too curious a search after what is past” for which antiquarian study came under fire (qtd. in Dorson 2). Whereas antiquaries saw themselves as recorders and preservers of localized material and narrative, folklorists sought to determine how and why that folklore is transmitted within and between cultures. The founding of the Folklore Society in 1878, and the work of Lang, Thoms, Joseph Jacobs, Alfred Nutt, George Lawrence Gomme, and Marian Roalfe Cox up to and after that moment, all suggest the extent to which “folklore” had come to supplant “antiquarian” studies in learned circles in the late century.

This epistemological shift also marked the increasing specialization of the field. Folklorists narrativized the history of the discipline as evolutionary and emergent, from amateur pastime to professional endeavor. The century saw the erosion of regional societies in the advent of professionalization (Levine 4). Folklorists placed themselves within the burgeoning positivist framework, and allied themselves with scientists, like J.P. Lesley, who saw their practice as having abandoned amateur amusement for “serious toil” in the “hot and dusty light” of “the sun of science” (qtd. in Zumwalt 2). Like the work in fields like philology, anthropology, and comparative mythology, folklore practice in the second half of the nineteenth century was characterized by the attempt to reconstruct interlocking histories of cultures and languages.

Throughout the nineteenth century, then, fairy tale and legend collections negotiated the boundaries of fiction and the social sciences. Fairy tale and legend collections often presented the commercially viable face of the antiquarian or folkloric enterprise, where antiquaries and later folklorists who published for a scholarly market also produced fairy tale editions for the (literary) children’s or Christmas book markets. For instance, antiquary Thomas Crofton Croker, a founder of the Percy and Camden societies, also wrote the fairy tale collection Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825). Joseph Ritson, an antiquary of folk poetry, also wrote Fairy Tales (1831, actually a collection of fairy legends). Historian and classical antiquary Thomas Keightley authored TheFairy Mythology (1828). Solicitor Edgar Taylor, who was an amateur translator of the New Testament, and of German poetry, translated into English the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1823). Natural historians commonly wrote separate volumes devoted entirely to fairy and animal lore. The Bewick brothers produced Select Fables (1776), Fabliaux (1796), and The Fables of Aesop (1818); Anna Eliza Bray, who wrote the natural history The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy (1838), also wrote the fairy legend collection A Peep at the Pixies (1854). These are the collections that made the names, and sometimes the fortunes, of their editors, compilers, and translators.

This sort of publication came of age in tandem with the fiction and poetry of the Victorian period—the multi-plot novels of Eliot and Dickens, the narrative poetry of Tennyson and Browning. Like these more conventionally literary artists, folklorists were fascinated with historical retrospection, with linking stories together in an integrated, contiguous chain. And like folklorists, literary artists claimed and reminted tales and legends for their own artistic and remunerative purposes. However, despite the methodological crossover between literary writers and folklorists in the late Victorian period, the authors most responsible for these intergeneric networks often registered mutual antipathy, and resisted acknowledging their entanglements and debts. These fields disparaged any implication of crossover; folklore collectors glossed over their tendencies to literary invention, while—with important exceptions like Walter Pater, John Ruskin, and the Pre-Raphaelites—literary and visual artists discounted the continuing power of oral source material to influence and shape creative works.

As Hardy’s short story suggests, one instantiation of this conflict can be found in the literary parody of antiquary and folklorist characters. [3] Hardy’s “Tryst” only updates a long tradition of depicting the collector and his collection alike as dry, abstruse, belated, and laughably fragmented. In verse, Alexander Pope mocked the antiquary Thomas Hearne in The Dunciad (1728-1743):

But who is he, in closet close y-pent,
Of sober face, with learned dust besprent?
Right well mine eyes arede the myster wight,
On parchment scraps y-fed, and Wormius hight,
To future ages may thy dulness last,
As thou preserv'st the dulness of the past!


And Robert Burns poked fun at his antiquarian friend Francis Grose, who had given up the shiny accouterments of his military career for the detritus of antiquities:

But now he's quat the spurtle-blade,
 And dog-skin wallet,
And taen the—Antiquarian trade,
 I think they call it.
He has a fouth o' auld nick-nackets:
Rusty airn caps and jinglin jackets.


In fiction, Sir Walter Scott created Jonathan Oldbuck, the titular character of The Antiquary (1816), whom he treats with affection, but also with some amused contempt for the single-mindedness of the antiquary’s pursuit and the cluttered minutia of his collection. Charles Dickens causes the members of his antiquarian Pickwick Club to be robbed, mobbed, shot, swindled, beaten, impounded, sued, and besotted. And George Eliot’s musty scholar Edward Casaubon—that head-wagging, sing-songing, soup-chewing, permanently incipient author of the Key to All Mythologies—himself admits that “I live too much with the dead. My mind is something like the ghost of an ancient, wandering about the world and trying mentally to reconstruct it as it used to be, in spite of ruin and confusing changes” (13).

I want to argue that fiction writers’ seemingly explicit antipathy to folklorists is part of a larger semantic and taxonomic conflict both groups share, one defined by a linked set of questions about the nature of narrative itself: who would compile the nation’s official narrative; what communities and contents would this narrative encompass (and thus leave out); and what was the value (in use and exchange) of this national story?

Early in the nineteenth century, Sir Walter Scott proposed a study “on the origin of popular fiction, and the transmission of popular tales from age to age,” which he hoped would explain why “such fictions, however wild and childish,” continue to “possess such charms for the populace” (188). Scott epitomizes the nineteenth-century response to the fairy tale. On one hand, reception of the tale can be measured by its very proliferation across the century, and its rising consumption as family entertainment. On the other hand, Victorians were profoundly ambivalent about the fairy tale, tending simultaneously to pronounce it an expired form, and to obsessively rehearse its themes and characters. Scott, for instance, however admiring of “popular tales,” sweeps them to the puerile margins of culture. Then too, Scott’s phrase, “wild and childish,” indicates the nineteenth-century discourses into which the fairy tale was incorporated. Folk narrative was ingrained in Britain’s sense of itself as an industrial nation, its longing to view London and Edinburgh as civilized centers surrounded by “wild and childish” rural regions and Celtic borders.

In Imagined Communities (1983), Benedict Anderson suggests that a nation defines its modernity in part through an invented antiquity. As part of this process, nations and groups passing through periods of rapid change collect folklore with greater urgency, believing that it will disappear forever in the face of newer knowledge. Anna Eliza Bray’s early ethnography, Traditions, Legends and Sketches of Devonshire on the Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy (1838), originated as a series of letters from Bray in Devon to Robert Southey in London; reporting from England’s “marginally civilized” Cornish outskirts, Bray designed to “gather up whatever of tradition and manners can be saved from oblivion” (2). Thomas Keightley, the fairy legend collector, felt that fairy belief lived on in the Celtic borderlands but was “extinct” in England (281). Though Keightley was writing in 1828, well before the popularization of Charles Darwin and even Charles Lyell, his progressivism depends upon the scientific language of earlier geological treatises. As they would a volcano or a dinosaur, inexorable forces of progress would doom the fairy tale. Indeed, the very synonyms that collectors used for their material—antiquities, fragments, remains, relics—suggest that which is left clinging to modernity as it thrusts onward and upward. To write down lore is to claim it for posterity, yet such acts of preservation by inscription differentiate the (creative) literary artist from the (archival) teller of tales. To Samuel Taylor Coleridge, however, the duty of modernity was a paradoxical one: “To preserve the stores, to guard the treasures, of past civilization, and thus to bind the present with the past; to perfect and add to the same; and thus to connect the present with the future” (34). Associating folk narrative with a vanishing Old England simultaneously “binds” and separates the compiler of folk material and the literary artist. The metaphors governing these acts are, predictably, figures of circulation and value. One pair of Victorian folklorists echoed Coleridge in describing their project as “treasuring up records of olden times” (Harland and Wilkinson 2), while modern critic Robert Patten has identified a widespread nineteenth-century comparison between telling fantastic stories and “telling” (or counting) coins. Studying the fairy tale was analogous to hoarding buried treasure, to “telling” and removing coins from circulation.

However, for seven hundred years of literary history, we have mourned fairy stories as dearly beloved remains, lost en route to modernity. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, for example, blamed the advent of Christianity and the enlargement of villages into towns for the loss of England’s “fayeryes” (872). But consider that Brontë’s Jane Eyre dates this fairy exile some four hundred years later: “The men in green all forsook England a hundred years ago . . . and not even in Hay Lane, or the fields about it, could you find a trace of them. I don't think either summer or harvest, or winter moon, will ever shine on their revels more” (139). Despite its eternally incipient demise, the fairy tale is alive and well in Chaucer as in Brontë. What, then, is the rhetorical power in claiming that the fairy tale is dead?

The extinct fairy was necessary to England’s sense of itself as an evolving nation and empire, but also to its understanding of its own literary mastery. In Book V of The Prelude (1850), Wordsworth praises fairy tales, but declines to draw upon them:

It might have well beseemed me to repeat
Some simply fashioned tale, to tell again
In slender accents of sweet Verse some tale
That did bewitch me then and soothes me now.


Wordsworth evidently concludes that “to tell again . . . some tale” is too “slender” a task for his epic Prelude. To him and other Romantics, outgrowing the fairy tale symbolized both a fully civilized nation and a mature artistry; genuine (masculine) creativity found its perfect other in the fairy tale. Victorian authors ratified and deepened this model, developing a narrative of loss with its origins in the Romantic child. In Dickens’ “A Christmas Tree,” an 1850 Household Words article, the narrator casts a nostalgic eye along a tree, its branches decorated with the gifts of successive childhood Christmases. As he mounts the tree, he progresses in intellectual and artistic endeavor: from an alphabet, to books of fairy tales, to pantomimes, to novels, to histories on the highest branches. In The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), the ideal girl and the ideal fairy converge, offering a sanctified, departed England. Nell, that “slight and fairy-like. . .creature,” journeying to her death in a rural past “with small fairy footstep,” prompts the novel’s closing words: “so do things pass away, like a tale that is told” (20, 536, 556)—and not, Dickens hopes, like a novel that is published. As Vladimir Propp would later propose, “Folklore is the womb of literature . . . Folklore is the prehistory of literature . . . Literature, which is born of folklore, soon abandons the mother that reared it” (14). Propp’s Victorian predecessors also figure fairy tales as simultaneously timeless and belated.

In fact, Dickens rather infamously disavowed the social currency of the fairy tale—at least in the hands of other authors. In “Frauds on the Fairies” (1853), Dickens excoriates fairy tales altered and manipulated for political aims (most especially George Cruikshank’s recent volume of temperance tales). Calling fairy narratives “the nurseries of fancy,” he concludes: “The world is too much with us, early and late. Leave this precious old escape from it, alone” (“Frauds on the Fairies” 100). In a letter to a friend, he proclaimed fairy tales as “beautiful little stories, which are so tenderly and humanly useful to us in these times when the world is too much with us, early and late” (qtd. in George Cruikshank’s Life, Times, and Art 336). In these nods to Wordsworth, Dickens signals a Romantic separation of past and present, serious and slender reading. One might point out that, Alice-like, Dickens gave himself advice but very seldom followed it, considering the extent to which he himself manipulated fairy tale plots to his own ends—a point to which I shall return.

The concept of the “wild and childish” fairy tale was so widespread that even the most eager compilers and adaptors tended to diminish the genre’s import. Ironically, while Lang was instrumental in codifying and legitimating fairy tale study—and thus ensuring the fairy tale’s continued currency in the age of science and academic discipline—he belonged to a group of scholars that displaced such tales into a “savage” past. As with other Victorian thinkers, Lang’s relationship to what he called “savagery” was complicated. He began his career by attacking Friedrich Max Müller’s theories in his 1873 essay “Mythology and Fairy Tales.” Lang furthered Edward Tylor’s anthropological theory of folklore in the 1870s and 1880s, sharing Tylor’s belief in “survivals”: that is, in the idea that fragmented remains of ancient cultures persist into the present. (This theory presumed that “savage” cultures are dead rather than living traditions; only their fragments survive.) Unlike Müller, Lang did not believe that tales were decayed myths, but rather that they retained their own generic form across the ages, each story transmitted from the “Original tale (probably of savage origin)” to the “Popular tale of peasants” to the “Modern literary version ([of] Perrault, etc.)” (qtd. in Cox xxii). As Lang put it in his introduction to Perrault’s Popular Tales (1888), “in their rustic weeds, they [i.e. tales] wandered out of the cabins of the charcoal burners, out of the farmers’ cottages, and after many adventures, reached that enchanted castle of Versailles” (xvii). Lang suggested that the “irrational and ‘infantile’ character” of tales and legends “is derived from their origin, if not actually among children, at least among childlike peoples, who have not arrived at ‘raison,’ that is, at the scientific and modern conception of the world and of the nature of man” (“Tales” 369-71). In this way, Lang’s work appears to fulfill Walter Scott’s early-century request for a study “on the…transmission of popular tales from age to age,” which he hoped would explain why “such fictions, however wild and childish,” continue to “possess such charms for the populace.” Lang constructs his historical explanation of fairy tales’ power using an evolutionary rhetoric that began long before Darwin’s Origin of Species. Like his contemporary, James Frazer, who, as Supritha Rajan notes, averred that “magic is the next of kin to science” but is its “bastard sister” (qtd in Frazer 62), Lang defined the fantastic narrative as debased, sexualized, and essentially female; he claimed, for instance, that fairy tales were first told by “naked savage women to naked savage children” (Violet Fairy Book vii). Here we see Lang’s fascinating conflation of material and narrative bodies: folklore is the womb of literature. Like many nineteenth-century authors, Lang characterized folk narrative as a developmental stage that the civilized west had essentially traversed: a loss, but one necessary to artistic, and indeed national, progress. [4]

In the prefaces to his fairy books, Lang repeatedly asseverates that he was “the Editor, and not the author of the Fairy Tales, just as the distinguished man of science is the Editor, not the Author of Nature” (Crimson Fairy Book v); that “nobody really wrote most of the stories” because “they are older than reading and writing”; that in fact “the thing is impossible. Nobody can write a new fairy tale; you can only mix up and dress up the old, old stories”; and that the “authors who try are very tiresome” (Lilac Fairy Book vii-viii). The job of “learned men,” Lang explains, is to “[collect] and [print] the country people’s stories, and these we have translated, for the amusement of children. Their tastes remain like the tastes of their naked ancestors, thousands of years ago” (Violet Fairy Book viii). But in the very same prefaces, Lang reveals a hand not merely curatorial, but creative. He explains, for example, that the stories have been “adapted to the needs of British children by various hands, the Editor doing little beyond guarding the interests of propriety, and toning down to mild reproofs the tortures inflicted on wicked stepmothers, and other naughty creatures” (Crimson Fairy Book v). Elsewhere, he credits his wife with authoring certain tales outright: “Mrs. Lang…does not give them exactly as they are told by all sorts of outlandish natives, but makes them up in the hope white people will like them, skipping the pieces which they will not like” (Brown FairyBook viii).

The prefaces are directed not at child readers, but at the adult purchasers of the books; Lang uses this forum to remind the reader that the books were best-selling items on the Christmas market, and that they presented the commercial face of his scholarly endeavors in the emerging field of folklore:

‘What cases are you engaged in at present?' 'Are you stopping many teeth just now?' 'What people have you converted lately?' Do ladies put these questions to the men—lawyers, dentists, clergymen, and so forth—who happen to sit next them at dinner parties?

I do not know whether ladies thus indicate their interest in the occupations of their casual neighbours at the hospitable board. But if they do not know me, or do not know me well, they generally ask 'Are you writing anything now?' (as if they should ask a painter 'Are you painting anything now?' or a lawyer 'Have you any cases at present?'). Sometimes they are more definite and inquire 'What are you writing now?' as if I must be writing something—which, indeed, is the case, though I dislike being reminded of it. It is an awkward question, because the fair being does not care a bawbee what I am writing; nor would she be much enlightened if I replied 'Madam, I am engaged on a treatise intended to prove that Normal is prior to Conceptional Totemism'—though that answer would be as true in fact as obscure in significance… One nymph who, like the rest, could not keep off the horrid topic of my occupation, said 'You never write anything but fairy books, do you?'

Lilac Fairy Book v-vi

Here Lang emphasizes that authorship is essentially a profession like the law, the church, or the dentist, but recognizes that academic writing is not worth “a bawbee” (a Scottish coin worth 3 pennies) to the general public; if one goal of his prefaces, then, is “advertising [his] own fairy books (which are not 'out of print'; if your bookseller says so, the truth is not in him)” (LilacFairy Book vii), another is demonstrating that his sanitized alterations (and those of the rest of his team) make the books a sound investment:

I take this opportunity of recommending these fairy books—poor things, but my own—to parents and guardians who may never have heard of them. They are rich in romantic adventure, and the Princes always marry the right Princesses and live happy ever afterwards; while the wicked witches, stepmothers, tutors and governesses are never cruelly punished, but retire to the country on ample pensions.

LilacFairy Book vi

It is fascinating to observe Lang claim the Colored Fairy books as “my own” in the same preface in which he insists “I do not write the stories out of my own head” (vii, emphasis original).In practice, then, the fairy tale was not the unearthed remains of a childish, primitive, or feminized culture, but an endlessly renewable resource. Lang had discovered what so many authors before him had found: that valuing the fairy tale as a coin out of circulation was, paradoxically, what insured its currency. The fairy tale was absolutely material, which is to say, relevant and lucrative, for literary authors and social scientists alike. Far from being a nostalgic or marginalized form, the fairy tale proved itself again and again to be fundamental to Victorian intellectual culture in its most up-to-date instantiations. The fundamental modernity of the fairy tale, then, exposes Lang’s insistence that fairy tales are “savage” as a prevarication, albeit one of the most interesting (and commercially successful) kind.

Lang’s involvement in the “plagiarism debates” of the late century exemplifies his complicated relationship to collection. In his essay for the Contemporary Review, “Literary Plagiarism” (1887), Lang considers what it means to make, to trade, and to collect, offering an analysis that challenges the rhetorical primacy of both intellectual property and literary genius:

The success or failure lies not in the materials, but in the making…and no dullard can make anything, even if he steals all his materials. On the other hand, genius, or even considerable talent, can make a great deal, if he chooses, even out of stolen material—if any of the material of literature can be properly said to be stolen, and is not rather the possession of whoever likes to pick it up.


As Letitia Henville argues, Lang emphasizes in this passage the physical nature of ideas. In using the word “material” four times in two sentences, for instance, Lang describes literature not as subjects (that is, topics), but as objects that can be picked up and possessed anew.

In a fascinating twist, Dickens himself anticipated some of these very same conceptual moves while writing Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), where he, too, meditated upon the problem of literary originality by discussing possible differences between theft and what we might call squatter’s rights—the claim upon another’s object that is not so much theft as productive repurposing. When dramatist William Thomas Moncrieff produced a theatrical version of Nickleby before Dickens had finished it, and an irate Dickens denounced the work, Moncrieff returned fire and accused Dickens of his own plagiarisms (Cox 21). The next number of Nickleby involved the hero in debate with a dramatist, in which Nicholas admits “that Shakespeare derived some of his plots from old tales and legends in general circulation” but concludes:

whereas he brought within the magic circle of his genius, traditions peculiarly adapted for his purpose, and turned familiar things into constellations which should enlighten the world for ages, you drag within the magic circle of your dullness, subjects not at all adapted to the purposes of the stage, and debase the exalted.

Nicholas Nickleby 598

Though Dickens was undoubtedly more conservative with regard to intellectual property than was the “open-access” Lang of the “Plagiarism” essay, it is important to note that for both Lang and Dickens “old tales and legends” are “traditions peculiarly adapted” for appropriation because they are perceived to be both authorless and genre-less. They belong to no one and are thus available to anyone.

This is especially interesting given what Lang leaves out of his prefaces. His own dedication to collaborative production mimics the fairy tale salons run by the French conteuses of the seventeenth century: authors like Madame d’Aulnoy, Madame de Beaumont, Madame de Murat, Mademoiselle L’H’éritier, and Mademoiselle Bernard, who together formed a network in which they both retailored and created afresh fairy tales for a hungry literary market. Lang makes no mention of the vigorous coterie print culture whose products he repackages, and while he does credit d’Aulnoy, he describes her as Perrault’s “imitator…a wandering lady of more wit than reputation” (Olive Fairy Book vi). While in the earliest Colored Fairy Books Lang carefully credits the contributors and translators of the stories—a whole host of young, or at least unmarried, women—by the end of the series he has abandoned this practice, preferring instead to condense these women writers into a single, iconic laborer with Biblical pedigree: “My part has been that of Adam, according to Mark Twain, in the Garden of Eden. Eve worked, Adam superintended. I also superintend. I find out where the stories are, and advise, and, in short, superintend” (Lilac Fairy Book vii). Though Lang is willing to present himself as the firm editorial hand over a body of narrative pulled from the savage margins for the pleasure of a civilization predicated on literacy, he is more reluctant to own his debt to a literary fairy tale tradition that was explicitly female. However, if we consider that the rise to ubiquity of the fairy tale was what helped spur the late-century plagiarism debate, and that the fairy tale in fact gestated Lang’s very methods of authorial production, then Lang’s characterization of both tales and their transmission as uncivilized and infantile becomes ironic. Lang was happy to cast himself, with a self-reflexive wink, as an uncivilized and infantile producer. But the more accurate characterization of fairy tale transmission would acknowledge its highly literate, intellectual collaboration and sophisticated, market-savvy book production—all skills that Lang himself, despite his pretended naiveté, also exhibited. The fairy tale has its roots not in savagery, but in modernity.

But the interchange between “savage” assemblage culture and “modern” literary and critical production would be explicitly solidified only later. Walter Benjamin’s work on the Arcades Project (1927-1940), begun nearly a half-century after Lang and Hardy’s exchange, will serve to demonstrate just how foundational the late-Victorian contretemps between authors and collectors would become for theorists and cultural critics, how instrumental for the eventual consolidation of the literary and social sciences as academic disciplines. Benjamin takes up the very questions that Hardy considers in “Tryst,” and that Lang examines in “Literary Plagiarism”: does the collector engage in unique cultural labor; is that labor is useful or valuable; and what do the notions of “use” and “value” mean in the context of collection? According to Benjamin, the collector “makes his concern the transfiguration of things.” He “dreams his way not only into a distant or bygone world but also into a better one—one in which…things are freed from the drudgery of being useful” (9). Under the auspices of this redemptive transfiguration, the act of collecting itself “is a form of practical memory” (205). Benjamin’s analysis enables us to see that the collector holds a unique position in Victorian culture, for collecting means “that the object is detached from all its original functions to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind” (205). Benjamin suggests that the collector integrates objects “into a new, expressly derived historical system” which “becomes an encyclopedia of all knowledge of the epoch, the landscape, the industry and the owner from which it comes” (204-5). Benjamin takes a more unequivocally positive view of collection than Hardy. His romanticism on the matter of lost fragments makes sense in light of the Arcades Project, which is itself a massive, unfinished collection that attempts to unfold an “historical system”: an “encyclopedia of all knowledge” or “landscape” of cited text.

And yet, even Benjamin’s approbation echoes the charges certain Victorian authors made about the nature of collection: that antiquarian compilations or collections of fairy tales are magical, irrational, detached from any original function, aesthetic rather than useful, and fundamentally retrospective. And, reiterating many Victorian thinkers before him, Benjamin posits an essential distinction between collector and author, or what he terms the “allegorist.” Where the collector “takes up the struggle against dispersion,” Benjamin says, the allegorist depends upon it (211). The collector apprehends innate meaning by gathering items into proximity and relation, while the allegorist creates a diverse, seemingly disjointed “patchwork,” out of which his authoring power (Benjamin calls it “his profundity”) makes meaning (211). In this supposed distinction Benjamin recapitulates many Victorian prejudices about the opposition of (derivative) collectors and (profound) authors; the collector is cast as the conduit through which knowledge flows, infused with the magical (but involuntary) impetus toward “completion,” while the allegorist is portrayed as the visionary forger of new connections.

So while the Arcades Project assembles quotations and “fragments” of text, rather than narratives or folk tales, Benjamin’s understanding of “collection” certainly resonates with those antiquarian and folklore collections that I have contextualized above, and in which Lang was a vital late-century player. The for-profit nature of his Fairy Book compendia and others like them shows that collections of the kind Benjamin both romanticizes and critiques might not be detached from commodity character or use value at all, as Benjamin hopes they will be, but rather aimed precisely at maximizing both. Then, too, Benjamin’s typology helps expose the idiosyncrasy, from the point of view of modern author-ideology, of Lang’s position. For by Lang’s very self-definition, he was simultaneously editor, compiler, superintendent, translator, and adaptor, yet also guardian and owner of the material in the Colored Fairy Books. Lang’s language in the Fairy Book prefaces makes him both an author and a collector in Benjamin’s terms. This tension in the prefaces—is or is not the book literature, is it or is it not the product of coterie production, is it or is it not Lang’s “own”?—signals the larger and more widespread tensions over what, precisely, constitutes authorship in a modern (that is, for-profit) media environment. It is, needless to say, a conflict that continues in various forms to this day.

Lang’s oeuvre, and his representation of it in his prefaces, encourages us to apprehend collection not as a wholly distinct cultural form, but as an alternate paradigm of authorship, one defined by collaboration between writers and genres. Seen this way, the practices of collection exhibited by Lang and others in the late nineteenth century emerge as a challenge to ideologies of literary artistry by pointing to literature’s own collaborative nature and multivocal qualities; nothing, after all, is ever wholly new, nor does anything seemingly new emerge from a single autonomous brain. It is for these reasons that Lang has been absent from the critical scene for so many years, and for these reasons that we return to him now to focus on his key role in an ongoing debate about the nature of originality as such.

Parties annexes