Andrew Lang’s Coloured Fairy Books

For the next two weeks, we’ll be posting images of Andrew Lang’s coloured fairy books on Twitter (@IULillyLibrary).

Andrew Lang (1844-1912) was a Scots literary critic, novelist, poet, essayist, folklorist, editor, translator, and anthologist.  A confirmed polymath and gifted polyglot, he was a true “man of letters” whose work in many fields made him an almost ubiquitous presence in the late 19th– and early 20th-century literary landscape.  Ironically, the books for which he is best remembered are books which he himself did not write.

These are the “coloured fairy books,” twelve volumes published by the London/New York firm of Longmans, Green, and Co. between 1889 and 1910, compiling a total of 437 fairy tales from all around the world, many appearing in English translations for the first time.  Lang selected the tales and edited the collections, but most of the translations and retellings were done by his wife, Leonora Blanche Alleyne Lang, and other collaborators.  In the final book in the series, The Lilac Fairy Book, Lang finally acknowledged that “the fairy books have been almost wholly the work of Mrs. Lang.”

These volumes renewed British interest in fairy stories; they were also unique in that they were specifically edited and marketed for children, and many of our ideas about fairy tales being the special province of the young can be traced back to their popularity.  Especially concerned with the readability of the texts, Leonora Lang attempted to limit the vocabulary and sentence structure so that the collections were accessible to children with average reading abilities.  They were also made more appealing with numerous black and white and color illustrations by H.J. Ford.

The Lilly Library has one of the largest collections of Andrew Lang’s printed work in the world, including first editions of all of the coloured fairy books, many in their rare original dust wrappers, removed here to show the glorious cloth bindings stamped with gold illustrations of the witches, fairies, monsters, and heroes that curious readers can find within their pages.  The Lilly Library’s Lang collection was amassed by Frank Graef Darlington (1859-1918), who was the Superintendent of the Indianapolis Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad and an avid book collector.

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