Terry Jones, Fairy Tales (Pavilion Books, 1981)
Fairy Tales by former Monty Python troupe member Terry Jones is a wonderful collection of original stories by one of the more creative and comedic minds of our time.
There comes a point in any book reviewer's life when one feels that a new entry in a particular genre cannot help but be a rehash of what has gone on before, and so it is always pleasant to come across a book for which one can truthfully declaim. This is not to say, however, that Fairy Tales is incredibly inventive or creative or cleverly subversive. It is all these things at one point or another. But Fairy Tales is actually refreshing because it focuses so closely on merely telling a good and enjoyable story that when it begins to touch on the creative or the inventive or the subversive, the reader is ready to embrace anything Jones wants to do.
Terry Jones, like most of the Pythons, is better educated than one would expect. He read English at Oxford University and wrote a study of Chaucer's Knight that was met with critical acclaim. Anyone who has watched at least a half-dozen episodes of the Flying Circus knows how erudite and literate the Pythons were, even while slapping one another with fish and chanting about Spam. Jones brings that wry tone to his Fairy Tales, but without irony. There is no sense of the 'nudge, nudge, wink, wink' in the telling of these tales.
Fairy Tales is a slim book. The Puffin paperback reprint is only 156 pages of large type, yet Jones manages to tell thirty original tales. But by 'original' I do not mean tales that are trend-setting or that set themselves apart by looking at the world in ways that most fairy tales do not. No, in this regard, the tales are most un-original, and even mundane. Rather, the tales are original in the sense that they came straight from Jones's mind, while drawing on the fairy tale traditions of Lang and Grimm.
Take, for example, the opening story, 'The Corn Dolly.' In this simple and short tale, a farmer discovers a corn dolly who feels that she is always put upon because she is not a human and doesn't get the privileges that humans receive. The farmer takes pity on her and begins granting her those privileges. First, he takes her into his house, then he invites her to sit at his table. Finally, the corn dolly begs to sit near the fire, where she is quickly consumed, being made of nothing but dried corn husks. The moral is obvious -- that we should find contentment with our limitations -- but the story is told in the forthright manner of traditional fairy tales. After having read this story, I felt as if I had known of this tale since I was a young boy, so ingrained in the fairy tale tradition was it.
Or look at 'The Wooden City.' There once was a king whose kingdom was not rich because he distributed his riches to his people to meet their needs. There was no starvation in his kingdom, but neither were there riches. A wizard comes to the kingdom who grants the people their wish to be rich, but at the price of their humanity: they are all turned into wooden mannequins. The king then has a series of adventures wherein he redeems his people from their folly while also teaching them of the error of their ways. Again, this tale is told in such a manner that I cannot recall ever not having known it, even though I read it for the first time less than a month ago.
What these tales achieve is originality in a more ancient sense. They are subversive in that they take the modern idea that originality means totally breaking with the past, and turn it on its head. Instead, they embrace what has gone on before and add their voice to it. In the end, what we get is a collection that will hold up to the test of time because it is not trapped in its era of origination, as are many of the more politically correct fairy tales that we see published today.
[Matthew Scott Winslow]
(Editor's note: Terry Jones' Fairy Tales is available from Amazon UK.)