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Fairty tales come true (sort of) for two great — albeit dead –writers.

April 26, 2011

Robert Louis Stevenson

Some of the greatest pleasures of my adult reading life arose from the discovery that fairy tales are not for the nursery alone. So I am delighted to report that tales by two of my favorite fabulists, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mervyn Peake, are set for new and improved editions.

One of the key texts in my personal fairy tale awakening is Stevenson’s “The Bottle Imp,” a story that could be read to a child with impunity, but which holds adult significance in its underlying themes of greed and responsibility, guilt and redemption. It’s also beautifully conceived and told, a thorough and thoroughly unsettling joy — no less than the hero’s immortal soul is in peril.

I discovered this story in an old anthology of fantastic tales that has, like the bottle and its genie, long passed out of my possession. Now it turns out that “The Bottle Imp” was never published according to Stevenson’s instructions, but was instead included in a mishmash collection called Island Nights’ Entertainments (1893) that his agent thought would make more money.

According to the Guardian, Stevenson, the Scottish author best known for Treasure Island, spent the last years of his life in Samoa, where he wrote “a series of fantastic tales and fables” set in the South Seas. He instructed his literary agent, Sidney Colvin, to publish the stories “as a set.”

Instead, Colvin took two of them — “The Bottle Imp” and “The Isle of Voices” — and added a third, realistic story to make up Island Nights’ Entertainments (1893). Stevenson, sickly all his life, died in Somoa in 1894 at the age of 44.

As the author of such various works as Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and A Child’s Garden of Verses, among many others, Stevenson remains one of the world’s most popular writers. Yet until now his South Seas fairy tales have never been published as he intended.

By mingling fantasy and realistic stories, “Colvin deliberately did exactly what [Stevenson said he didn’t want and then it was all put down to communications problems,.”says Bill Gray, professor of literary history at Chichester University.

Mervyne Peake

Gray has campaigned for six years for a new edition of Stevenson’s fairy tales. He’ll get his wish in 2013, when the University Press in Edinburgh issues an entirely new edition entitled Fables and Fairy Tales, which will reunite “The Bottle Imp” and “The Isle of Voices” with another fable, “The Waif Woman.”

“It will be the first time they have been read together as a group, just as Stevenson intended,” says Gray.

Meanwhile, a very different kind of fantasy writer, Mervyn Peake, will have some of the lost tales he told his young sons reconstituted by Michael Moorcock, one of Britain’s most important sci-fi authors.

Peake is best known for the Gormenghast trilogy, a decidedly adult and very odd series of novels sometimes viewed as offering an alternative to The Lord of the Rings style of fantasy. No wizards, trolls or magic can be found in Peake’s books, although they are no less monstrous and mesmerizing for that.

In his time, however, Peake, who died in 1968 at age 57, was best known as an illustrator. Now it turns out that every Sunday he made up stories for  his sons, drawing pictures to go with them on the spot. These stories were not recorded, but the illustrations — sailors, pirates, cowboys, Indians — survive.

Now Moorcock, a friend of Peake’s,  has written comic verses to accompany some of the pictures for a new volume to be called The Sunday Books.

“Everything [Peake] produced in his lifetime has been reprinted many times over, apart from the ‘Sunday books’ done for his boys,” Moorcock says “It has been my ambition for some years to put at least some of these drawings before the public and give perhaps a taste of the narratives and verses with which he might have embellished them.”

The Sunday Books will be published this summer to help commemorate the centenary of Peake’s birth. A fourth Gormenghast novel, Titus Awakes, will also be published. Written by Peake’s wife, the author Maeve Gilmore, the manuscript was discovered by his son last year.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2011 9:02 pm

    You gave me a flashback with Stevenson. Treasure Island was the very first book I read to my grandson. He’s grown up now and is a voratious reader, adores Tolstoy. Not saying there’s a connection, but your never know.

    On another subject, have you read Water for Elephants? I tried reading it, but it didn’t grab me. Gave up after 3 chapters. I felt the author striving with all her might to make the story so gripping the reader couldn’t put it down. The author should disappear and leave only the story occupying the reader’s mind. Maybe I’m being too fussy?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 27, 2011 11:30 am

      Duff, I have not tackled Water for Elephants — too many books, too little time, of course, plus I anticipated a reaction similar to yours. Unless I’m planning to review a book, I generally prefer to await recommendations. As I write these words I find they are completely untrue. I’ve read a number of awful, awful novels lately — most recently Karen Russell’s much-praised Swamplandia! — that I have been unable to review. Old habits — 23 years of writing a weekly book review column — die hard. If I can’t find an outlet for book reviews, I wonder how long it will take to wean me off of new books and return to the childhood pleasures of reading any damned thing I please?

      You may be interested to know that I first discovered Stevenson while reading Treasure Island to my eight-year-old daughter, Alexis, who loved it so much we immediately moved on to Kidnapped. She, too, remains, at nearly 30, a voracious reader — her friends are amazed to discover she does not own a TV. (Even I’m not that pure). Shortly after, I came across “The Bottle Imp,” one of those stories that pulses inside me like a living memory.

      • April 27, 2011 12:28 pm

        Small world, Chauncey. Water for Elephants was a recommendation. Iwanted to like it, but just couldn’t. And what would we do without Stevenson to read to our children and grandchildren? What a very fine coincidence that is.

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