Thursday, September 19, 2013

American Fairy Tales: From Rip Van Winkle to the Rootabaga Stories

I happened to come across this compilation years ago while looking through audio books at the library, being surprised to find an audio book that had the title of a book by L. Frank Baum. While I enjoyed listening to the audio book, I have finally picked up a copy of the print book.

This book is a compilation of American-penned fantasy stories. The subtitle is very accurate: the first story is Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" and the last one is Carl Sandburg's "How They Broke Away to Go to the Rootabaga Country."

Editor Neil Philip notes in his afterword that when researching the collection, many people remarked that there was no such thing as an American fairy tale. But we Oz fans can of course counter that Oz is quite the American fairy tale. But this collection presents seven fairy stories of American origin before representing Baum with "The Glass Dog" (from his own American Fairy Tales). Philip is quite well-researched and this might prove quite the book for anyone wanting to start to put Oz into the proper context of the canon of American-penned fantasy.

Kicking it off is "Rip Van Winkle," the famous tale of how a hen-pecked husband went hunting and had a supernatural encounter with some odd dwarf-like men who play nine pins. The titular Rip fall asleep after trying their liquor and re-awakens to discover that twenty years have passed, leaving him to spend the rest of his life as an amiable old man.

Next is "Feathertop" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This one may have had served some inspiration to L. Frank Baum as it involves an old witch named Mother Rigby (possibly inspiring Mombi both in character and in name) who makes a scarecrow made of sticks with a pumpkin for a head. She decides to cause the neighborhood some mischief by bringing him to life with her pipe. In quite the opposite of his famous Ozian descendents, Feathertop discovers that he can't mix with humanity. I find "Feathertop" to be quite enjoyable to read or listen to.

Horace E. Scudder is represented with "The Rich Man's Place." While not exactly magical, it tells of a lavish home of a rich man who lets people and animals explore the grounds. We eavesdrop on conversations between some fancy-shaped trees, some chickens, and a poor couple who have something better than wealth.

The otherwise unidentified "M. S. B." appears to represent the obscure gems from St. Nicholas magazine with a fanciful tale titled "What They Did Not Do on the Birthday of Jacob Abbot B., Familiarly Called Snibbuggledyboozledom." It's exactly what it says it is: an account of what did not happen one day.

Frank Stockton's "The Bee-man of Orn" appears next as a junior sorcerer detects that a man who lives with bees has been transformed. The Bee-man goes to discover his true form, and finds that his transformation is a rather familiar one.

Familiar names from American literature begin to turn up again with Howard Pyle, famous for his collected version of Robin Hood, presenting a very traditional tale "The Apple of Contentment." A mother prefers her two other daughters over Christine, but when she's given a gift from a little man, they begin to envy her. She gets a little seed that grows into a tree that bears apples that only she can pick that provide whatever she needs. When a passing prince wants the apple, it looks like a happy ending is in store.

Little Women's Louisa May Alcott's "Rosy's Journey" comes next, telling of how a girl whose mother died is helped along to find her gold-mining father by a series of her helping animals and them helping her in return.

Next up is Baum's "The Glass Dog," in which an accomplished wizard barters for a glass dog to keep unwelcome visitors away from his home in a typical American city. (Readers of Outsiders from Oz, I did reference this story.) The glass-blower decides to give his cure-all to a rich girl in exchange for her hand in marriage, but she doesn't really like him and is willing to play a few tricks to keep him away. However, he's got a few tricks of his own that he can play.

Laura E. Richards' "The Golden Windows" kindly speaks of contentment as a little boy goes to see the house on a hill he can spot every night that has golden windows.

Next up is Ruth Plumly Thompson's own tale "The Princess Who Could Not Dance," which had been previously collected in The Princess of Cozytown. As I said when I reviewed that volume: "The story tells of the princess Dianidra, who cannot find it in herself to dance. After getting fed up with dancing masters and leaving the palace, she meets a good fairy who teaches her the secret of dancing. It is one of Thompson's more beautiful tales." Philip notes that Thompson may have become a much more famous fantasy writer had she not taken up the Oz series.

Will Bradley's "The Lad and Luck's House" takes a rather odd way of telling the tale. Thanks to some help from us common American folk at the urging of a little fairy, a poor young lad is able to save a princess and later win her hand. It begins as distinctly American then turns a little more traditional a third in. It's an odd way of telling the story, but quite enjoyable.

Finally, Carl Sandburg's "How They Broke Away to Go to the Rootabaga Country" tells of how a father named Gimme the Ax and his children Please Gimme and Ax Me No Questions decide to leave for a very different country indeed. Sandburg plays in just enough nonsense to make quite a whimsical tale. (This is also the only story in the book that required permission for reprinting.)

So, whether you want to sample some of America's fine fairy tales or want to get a larger idea of how Oz fits into American folklore, I'd suggest checking out Philip's collection of tales. If nothing else, Michael McCurdy's lovely illustrations are a delight to see.

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