The Fairy Tale Book, translated by Marie Ponsot

I have read many fairy tale books but this one has the most gorgeous illustrations I have ever seen. As a child, I checked it out from our school library many times. I finally found a copy for sale at a local book store and begged my mother for it for Christmas. When I returned to the store it was gone and I was in tears. A family friend had secretly purchased it for me and it was a big treat under the Christmas tree. I have kept it all these years and read it to my daughter at bedtime. A few of my favorite stories in it are “Donkey-Skin” by Charles Perrault, “Kip, the Enchanted Cat” (from a Russian tale), and “Green Snake” by Madame d’Aulnoy.

“The Seven Crow Princes” by the Brothers Grimm (p. 119-120) is an example of a quest story. In it, the baby princess’s seven brothers are turned into crows by their father’s curse when they are late bringing water for her baptism (the water motif again). She finally learns the story of what happened to her brothers and sets off on a quest to find them.

A “wise person” the Morning Star gives her a sharp little bone (an amulet and tool to help her in achieving her quest)(both are common parts of quest stories). She loses the bone and in keeping with the macabre nature of the Grimm Brothers, she cuts off her own little finger to make a new tool to open the door of the glass mountain her brothers are imprisoned in.

She sits down to dinner  in the home of the crow brothers. She drinks a drop of liquid from each of the seven crystal goblets and a crumb of bread from each plate. She drops her mother’s ring into the seventh glass. Then she hides. The crow brothers return and the seventh almost chokes on the ring at the bottom of his glass (if they were crystal, one wonders why he didn’t see that there was something clinking around in the bottom…). He recognizes the ring as his mother’s and wonders if his sister has come for them. As soon as she comes out of hiding, the enchantment is broken and they all go home together.

“The Wild Swans” by Hans Christian Anderson is a similar quest tale. This time there is an evil queen stepmother who turns eleven brothers into wild swans (p. 74-79). She has sent the one daughter Lisa to live in a farmhouse (compare with Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty living with the fairies in the woods). When Lisa is 15, the king wants to see her. The wicked stepmother smears Lisa in dirt and filth and the king disowns her. Lisa goes wandering, searching for her brothers. An old wise woman leads Lisa to a river where she has seen eleven crowned swans.

“The river never stops,” Lisa said to herself. “With patience, it changes everything it touches. I’ll be as patient as a river. I’ll look forever. I’ll find my brothers” (p. 75). Again we have a water motif as she follows the river to the sea (crossing water is often a quest motif). She hides at sunset and sees the swans land and turn into her brothers (compare with the Wild Swans in “Swan Lake” who can only become maidens after sunset). The brothers tell Lisa they can only visit this land once a year and the rest of the time they live “Beyond the sea. We need two days to fly across. We’d never manage if it weren’t for a rock that lies halfway across the sea. It’s just big enough for us to spend the night on” (Ibid.). They weave a net to carry her in and they barely make it to the rock and weather a terrible storm. When they arrive in the “magical land” they take Lisa to a grotto where she dreams. A wise woman in her dream tells her to harvest stinging nettles from around the grotto or from graveyards. They will sting and blister her fingers, but they have the properties, when woven into coats for the brothers to return them to their human forms. She must do this task without speaking or her brothers will die. She sets to work and tells the brothers by sign language what she must do.

A king finds her working in the grotto and takes her to his palace. He decides to marry him. She continues her work on the eleven nettle coats but must go to the graveyard for more nettles. The archbishop sees her and decides she is a witch. The king goes with him to see Lisa return to the cemetary for more nettles. She is about to be burned at the stake when her brothers return as swans and surround her. She throws the almost finished coats over the swans and they transform into princes (except one brother still has a swan’s wing as she didn’t quite finish his coat…nice story twist). “Now I may speak!” she cried. “I’m innocent!” The quest is complete and the real world resumes.

This time Love’s labors are not lost. The lesson is that loyalty to family, keeping vows and persistence in the face of adversity pay off. I prefer Anderson to the Grimm Brothers for his style of story telling. This is a really beautiful book by Golden Press. Mine is the 6th edition and I hope that they have gone through many more printings. Illustrations are by Adrienne Segur. For more of her art, see this tribute to her, 156 pages.


About KLevenson

I am Teacher Librarian at Piedmont High School in the San Francisco East Bay. I am a part time reference Librarian I for the San Francisco Public Library. I have a Masters in Library and Information Sciences from San Jose State and a Teacher Librarian credential in addition to my teaching credential in Science. My first MA was from Harvard in Archaeology. My students teach me something new every time I am with them!
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