1823 is where it really began for illustrated children’s books in Britain; with the first publication of tales from the Brothers Grimm in English, illustrated by George Cruikshank – a man who had found fame drawing pictures of the Prince Regent blowing off.
There had been publications for children before Grimms’ Fairy Tales; publishers were quick to pick up on the demand for improving illustrated alphabets and encyclopaedias, but collections like Mother Bunch’s Fairy Tales were widely seen as unhealthy. The appearance of the Grimms was something different: a gallimaufry of magic and horror with etchings by the greatest illustrator of the day.
The original edition has the rather austere title, German Popular Stories – instead of the original Kinder und Haus Marchen. Reflecting their original intent, these ‘house stories’ are meant to be read aloud, enjoyed not just by children but the whole family.
The fascinating preface by translator Edgar Taylor shows that even in 1823 publishers clearly prized the crossover book. ‘Popular fictions and traditions are somewhat out of fashion, yet most will own them to be associated with the brightest recollections of their youth. They have been the revivers of drowsy age at midnight; old and young have with such tales chimed mattins till the cock crew in the morning.’
Taylor is keen to impress the scholarly value of these amusements. The preface mentions the many connections between fok stories from Britain and the oral tales as written down by the Grimms, Charles Perrault and other story collectors in Europe. There’s a shared literary heritage, and perhaps we aren’t so very different from the neighbours that Cruikshank took such vicious delight attacking in so many of his cartoons.
He also bemoans the lack of value placed on traditional English folk tales. In another comment that chimes with the way many of today’s children in British schools are being taught to ‘comprehend’ stories, without getting to love them as entertainment or literature, he writes: ‘This is the age of reason, not of imagination; and the loveliest dreams of fairy innocence are considered as vain and frivolous. Much might be urged against this rigid and philosophic (or rather unphilosophic) exclusion of works of fancy and fiction.’
Edgar Taylor is the unsung hero of English children’s literature. He attacked rationalist thinking and championed the reintroduction of imaginative, fantastical tales as ‘healthy’ reading matter for children. His work opened the door to Hans Christian Andersen and a new world of children’s writing with complex moral messages.
He needn’t have worried though, the Kinder und Haus Marchen he presented are of such extraordinary power that they’ve endured to become one of the most influential literary sources in the early 21st century. From a lightly academic collection by Philip Pullman and drop dead gorgeous adaptation by Neil Gaiman, to the pulp comic and TV franchises and never ending Hollywood high campery; more people than ever before are enjoying these tales that were ‘taken from the mouths of German peasants’.