The Annals of Reading: Once a Classic, Always a Classic for Children?

“Stories Old & New”: The Canterbury Tales

Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales : brightly-colored, color-printed dust jacket of  Blackie & Son’s edition for children from their “Stories Old & New” series (©1966).

The other day I spotted an interesting-looking book on the shelves of the Princeton Public Library’s ongoing “Friends of the Library” book sale (which prices most books at $1 or $2, just the right price to snare a casual browser!).  It was an edition of The Canterbury Tales in a brightly-colored, illustrated paper dust-jacket, published by Blackie & Son of London and Glasgow (©1966), which originally sold for 45 pence as a new book, the equivalent of a little over $1 — or roughly about £9 and $11, respectively, at today’s exchange rate, the British pound having declined in value from about $2.40 to $1.25 between 1966 and 2019.  Times change, currency exchange rates change, and literary tastes with them!

Even accounting for changing book-design and cover artwork over the last 50 years, the dust jacket looked a too colorful for an edition of “classic literature,” at least to my eye; the book itself also seemed rather thin to contain all twenty-four of Chaucer’s tales.  Looking a little more closely at the book, I saw found the explanation on the inside front dust jacket’s blurb: this edition was part of the publisher’s series of children’s books — “Stories Old & New” — “designed and written to appeal to children over the age of seven.”  And the table of contents listed just four tales: The Knight’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale, The Man of Law’s Tale, and The Franklin’s Tale, preceded by a short Introduction by the credited adapter, Dulan Barker, who purposefully rendered his adaptation in “simple and straightforward” prose,” not verse as Chaucer’s original had been (and in modern English too, not Middle English — young readers rejoice!).

Barker adds that he selected these four tales as ones “most likely to appeal to children.” A quick survey of Cotsen copies of a number of Canterbury Tales adaptations from the 19th and 20th centuries tends to confirm his judgement about popularity, at least insofar as “appeal” is reflected by which tales are included in reprinted editions.  And The Knight’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale, and The Man of Law’s Tale are confirmed as the “most often retold” of the tales in the Victorian and Edwardian editions for children by Velma Bourgeois Richmond in her scholarly study, Chaucer as Children’s Literature, which includes several checklist tables, tallying exactly which tales are included in prominent editions, as well as how many illustrations each of these various editions contain.[i]

“Stories Old & New” series titles, as listed on the dust jacket’s inside flap.

Barker’s short but illuminating Introduction concludes by asserting that he hopes readers will be prompted by his short edition to then turn to the “unique and delightful tales … as Chaucer wrote them.” The goals of adapting literary “classics” for children in language that they can (and will!) read and enjoy, seeking to use these adaptations to cultivate readers’ interest in the canonical originals — and in literature generally — and also using these adaptations as a means of teaching moral lessons are all ones that children’s books publishers pursued from the 18th century on into the 20th century (when explicit moral lessons and heavily didactic “instruction” increasingly took a backseat to “delight,” pleasure, and cultivating imagination).  Like most generalizations, the one I just made greatly oversimplifies nuances and individual authorial styles, but overall, I’d say that’s the general trend in children’s books over this time span.

Other “Stories Old & New” series titles listed on the lower inside dust jacket indicate that adaptation included a combination of older literary “classics,” perennial children’s favorites, and collections of tales or stories: The Arabian Nights, The Golden Fleece, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tales from Shakespeare (the Lambs’ prose adaptation of Shakespeare plays, which itself became a children’s classic), Alice in Wonderland, Stories from Grimm, Sleeping Beauty, Lazy Jack & Other Stories.

Following the general practice in adaptations of literary classics for children — and in 19th and 20th century versions in particular — Blackie’s “Stories Old & New” edition of The Canterbury Tales features a number of illustrations: dramatic line-drawings by Geoffrey Fraser. Several highlight the action-and-adventure aspects of the world of medieval knights, era of chivalry, or fabled warriors from mythic epics or romances that publishers thought would appeal to young readers, but particularly to boys, I’d have to say.

Duke Theseus of Athens — depicted much like a medieval king — accosted on his erstwhile wedding day by the widowed queen of King Capaneus, who begs for justice against the murderous, usurper Creon of Thebes in The Knight’s Tale.

The Athenian Arcita (i.e. Arcite), depicted as a chivalric knight, with quasi-Greek helmet, as he goes into trial combat with Palamon for the hand of Emily (Emelye), sister-in-law of Duke Theseus, illustrating a subsequent scene in The Knight’s Tale.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women are depicted in an almost equal number of Fraser’s illustrations, most stressing the pathos of their roles in the tales in which they appear (usually as victims of the ill-will or capriciousness of others, mostly men but sometimes women too). These illustrations have an emotional power and resonance that I think distinguishes them from the illustrations of noble knights or some of the other, more simply pictorial ones.

“Patient Griselda” weeping with happiness and hugging one of her children, after finding out that they had not been killed by her husband, who also pretended to divorce her, and did cast her out of the house in a series of Job-like trials (The Clerk’s Tale).

Tempest-tossed boat carrying Constance — wife of the Syrian sultan and daughter of the Roman emperor — after she was treacherously put to sea in a rudderless boat to be “blown on the seas” for years until her “virtue and goodness” are rewarded” (The Man of Law’s Tale).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding this illustrated edition fascinating, if quirky, I realized that I didn’t recall seeing — or cataloging — very many editions of The Canterbury Tales in Cotsen Library’s collection over the years, especially books from the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries.  A quick search of our catalog bore out that impression — there’s weren’t nearly as many as there were of comparable editions of “literary classics” for children, such as adaptations of Shakespeare plays, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, or even Pilgrim’s Progress, the latter once something of a “must read” for children and the object of a number of illustrated or abbreviated versions for children. Virtually all the adaptations for children were from the 19th century — and the latter part at that — with earlier adaptations of Chaucer’s tales or episodes from the tales definitely not kid stuff!

Title page of Gay’s Wife of Bath Comedy (London: 1713) [3751.5.397.11]

Among the adaptations of Chaucer I found in Princeton’s catalog was a 1730 theatrical adaptation of the Wife of Bath’s Tale by John Gay, perhaps best know as the playwright of The Beggar’s Opera (immortalizing the likes of Captain Macheath and Polly Peachum), which had been first produced just two years before. The Wife of Bath’s Tale, with its sexual content and the bawdy language used by the Wife herself, is decidedly not for children.  And Gay’s “Comedy” is it is not intended for children either; it features characters with names like Doggrell, Merit, Astrolabe, Grist, Spigot, and Busy, more akin to those of the madcap inhabitants infesting Ben Jonson’s wildly satiric London City Comedies. (Prior owners have made some personal annotations on the title page, including adding Gay’s first name in a print hand, apparently later than the inked script at the head of the page.)

Another 18th century “adaptation” of Chaucer that my catalog search turned up was: John Dryden’s Palamon & Arcite, or, The Knight’s Tale: in Three Books, contained in a 1713 volume of verse entitled, Fables Ancient and Modern…from Homer, Ovid, Boccace (i.e. Boccaccio) and Chaucer.  Again, not really children’s reading; I think they’d find three volumes of Dryden’s heroic couplets a bit taxing, and less than fully engaging, as the opening lines might suggest:

Dryden’s Palamon & Arcite, from Fables Ancient and Modern… (London: 1730) [PR3418 .F5 1713]

In days of old, there liv’d, of mighty fame
A valiant Prince; and Theseus was his name:
A chief, who more in feats of arms excell’d
The rising not setting sun beheld.

Finding my OPAC searches not yielding much in terms of earlier children’s adaptations of The Canterbury Tales, I turned to some standard bibliographies of children’s books: The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books: 1476-1910 (1975) and Laurence Darton’s The Dartons: An Annotated Checklist of Children’s Books… 1787-1876 (2004).  Both are magisterial classics.  But among Darton publications all I could find was a book, cover-titled Illustrious Characters… Ornamental Penmanship (1823), including an engraved plate statement about William Caxton, the first publisher of The Canterbury Tales.  Osborne listed A Treatise on the Astolabe, addressed to his son, Lowys, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1561?) and the 1882 title: Chaucer for Children: A Golden Key by Mrs. H.R. Havens , “a keen student of Chaucer,” also noted that she had previously published a 1880 title: Chaucer for Schools. 

I later turned up a number of other versions of Chaucer for children in Cotsen’s collection and elsewhere, most of them from the latter 19th century or the 20th century, when Chaucer adaptations for children really seemed to come into their own, in part due to the romantic allure of medievalism and medieval design. But many items were entered (properly) under their own title, not with “Canterbury Tale,”or “Chaucer” as part of their title, and some were published as part of broader collections of items within a book of a different title (cf. Dryden’s Fables…, which I mentioned above, which fortuitously mentioned Chaucer in its title and also included a cataloger’s note about the contents.  Thus, Chanticleer and the Fox (mentioned in the Nun Priest’s Tale), The Story of Patient Griselda (from the Knight’s Tale), or Pilgrim’s Tales from Chaucer, were among the books turning up in a revised search query.  So I got a small lesson in catalog searching!

Gilt-stamped pictorial cover of the search-evading title: The Story of Patient Griselda (London: Routledge, [1906]) [Cotsen 84718]

But the absence of earlier (17th-18th c.) adaptations was still a puzzle to me. Was Chaucer considered unsuitable fodder for children’s adaptations because of some of the Tales‘ inappropriate sexual, and sometimes reprehensible content, the sometimes-bawdy language used by some characters, or something about the subject matter related (drinking, warfare, quarreling, etc.)?  Or did this absence have something to do with religion?  The pilgrimage to Canterbury was made by the tale-tellers (like others) to venerate a Catholic saint, Thomas Beckett; pilgrimages and saints also continued to have distinctly Catholic overtones in assertively Anglican England after the Protestant Reformation and perhaps even more so in Puritan England and America.  Could this religious context have made the Tales content that a publisher would shy away from issuing for children?  Were fabliaux, fairy tales, and fantastical tales considered too racy or too tied to superstition, or wild imaginings and fantasies for some educators and proponents of children’s literature after the Enlightenment?  Or some combination of all of these?  This seemed possible to me, and Richmond’s introductory chapter — “Contexts and Criticisms” — confirmed this.

But this is a topic that I’d like to explore more — as well as looking more closely at some of the (often lavishly-illustrated) Canterbury Tale adaptations for children from the mid-nineteenth century onward in a future blog posting.  And all this because of a $2 book found in a library book sale!

“Dinner in the Olden Time” – Late 19th c. colored wood-engraving by Edmund Evans, depicting the Canterbury pilgrims at a tale-telling meal: Chaucer for Children (London: Chatto & Windus, 1877) [Cotsen 23643]


Notes:
[i] Richmond, Velma Bourgeois. Chaucer as Children’s Literature: Jefferson, N.C. and London: McFarland & Co., 2004. 

According to Richmond, The Knight’s Tale comes in as the #1 tale, included in virtually all collections of Canterbury Tales reprints in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Recycling Wizards, or, Timely Warnings to Rash and Disobedient Children and Adults

Title page from A Timely Warning to Rash and Disobedient Children  [Edinburgh? : ca. 1721?] (Cotsen 96399)

Wizards are coming soon to the Cotsen Gallery — at least illustrations of them from a wide range of Cotsen Library books, as Andrea Immel wrote last week. While doing photo research for the exhibition, Andrea asked me if I’d come across any good prospects in the course of my cataloging work.  One came instantly to mind: the title page woodcut from A Timely Warning to Rash and Disobedient Children.

Why?  Glad you asked… This book came to mind so readily because  while previously cataloging it, I realized that I’d seen this illustration before – at least reproductions of it — in several modern editions of Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.  This woodcut first appeared in the 1616 quarto edition of the play and was recycled in a number of subsequent seventeenth-century printings.  (An earlier quarto version — sometimes referred to as the “A Text” — had appeared in 1604, without this woodcut and with a printer’s device on the title page.)   Faustus is depicted in the middle of his magic circle, book in hand, at the moment when his conjurations have summoned Mephistopheles, depicted as a horned demon with a forked tail, emerging from the infernal depths through the floor of Faustus’ study.  In the background we can see some of his scholar’s books and, ironically, a cross, symbol of all Faustus is abjuring. Somewhere along the way, this woodcut seems to have become something of a visual icon of the play.

Modern reproduction of the title page of 1616 quarto edition of Dr. Faustus.

The woodcuts used for the 1616 quarto of  Dr. Faustus and the reprinted versions of 1619, 1620, 1624, 1628, and 1631 (and possibly others) all look  essentially identical, suggesting that the same woodblock may actually have been reused for them all.  (The woodcuts in the later quartos don’t crop off the right side of the illustration, but I think this is a printing aspect of a cheap book for which a printer was less likely to reprint an imperfectly-printed page, rather than a variation in the actual woodblock. But take a look at the copy of the 1624 title page below and decide for yourself.)  However, the cut appearing on the title page of A Timely Warning is a bit different, as we can see looking at the two woodcuts side-by-side, suggesting that a new block had been cut at some point, using the original cut as a guide.  Compare the Timely Warning cut to the one used in original 1616 version of Dr Faustus. Mephistopheles has become larger relative to Faustus and rendered somewhat differently, Faustus’ library has acquired more books, and the window of his study is now open, revealing the natural world he has forsaken with his “unnatural” conjuring.  But despite these differences, I think it’s remarkable that essentially the same illustration was still in use some one hundred years after it first appeared in the 1616 quarto.  This suggests that the illustration must have resonated strongly with readers and also that it had evolved  into an evocative symbol of the Faustus / Faust story, at least in England.

Illustrated title page of “… The Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Dr Faustus…” (London: [ca. 1700]) (RHT 18th-72)

A very similar, but new version of the Faustus illustration graces the circa 1700 version of The Damnable Life printed by “C. Brown” and sold by “M. Hotham, at the Black Boy on London-bridge.”  This version is more like the original woodcut from 1616 than the one used in the 1721 Timely Warning, but there are clear differences when we look at all three cuts together. Faustus, the devil, and the cross are all packed more tightly together in this version than in the cut used for Marlowe’s play.  The symbols in the magic circle are different, and there are a number of other small variations, all of which suggest that this cut was made by yet another woodblock.

Although the story of Dr Faustus is strongly associated with Marlowe (accused by some of being a blasphemer himself, who “died swearing” and a believer in the dark arts), the Faust legend predates Marlowe’s play.  The basic outline involves a learned man and scholar of theology who becomes bored and disenchanted with his studies — “a greater subject fitteth Faustus’ wit,” in Marlowe’s words — who arrogantly makes a pact with the devil and exchanges his soul for knowledge and power.  As such, it’s often presented as a cautionary tale: Faustus forsakes religion and God, makes a deal with the devil, cannot repent, and is himself forsaken to damnation; the mortal sinner gets what he deserves. As an early printed version of the Faust story, the 1592 Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death of Doctor Iohn Faustus used by Marlowe as a source, phrases the story’s conclusion:

Then came the Devill [sic] and would have me away…as I turned against God, he would dispatch me altogether … [then was heard] a mighty noyse and hissing as if the hall had been full of snakes and adders … Faustus began to crie for help … but shortly [he was] heard no more.

Much like the woodcut of Faustus and Mephistopheles, the (non-Marlovian) language in this first translation of this version of the Faust story into English was also remarkably long-lived, as I was surprised to discover (but I’m getting ahead of myself).

The moral of the story seems intended to be clear to us, as does its title: Damnable Life, and Deserved Death!  But Marlowe used the outline of the story and reworked it as the basis of a tragedy, titled accordingly: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (or The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus in the 1604 quarto; both were published after Marlowe’s 1593 death, so neither title was necessarily his choice).  Marlowe’s protagonist Faustus suffers as a result of a “fatal flaw” — arrogance, pride, and susceptibility to trafficking with the devil — in a way more like Tamburlaine, King Lear, or Macbeth than the main character in Damnable Life, and Deserved Death.  Faustus suffers the same hellish fate — “Faustus is gone, regard his hellish fall, / Whose fiendful fortune may exort the wise” says the speaker of the Epilogue — but most audiences’ response to the “moral” of Marlowe’s play is is more nuanced and complex, as the playwright no doubt intended.

Close up of the title and (long) sub-title of A Timely Warning

Historically, hellfire, brimstone, and eternal damnation in the cauldron of Hell has given pause to both adults and children through the ages.  But would worldly power over kings or  having Helen of Troy as a paramour be the sorts of temptations that might hit home to children?  That moral and plotting dilemma was resolved by the author of A Timely Warning by framing the story as one of an overly indulged prodigal son — “a young gentleman ” — who sells his soul to the devil to get revenge against his father and mother because his father denied him some money.  While that’s an extreme reaction, for sure, what child hasn’t felt some degree of anger, resentment, and even a desire to “get back at” parents who won’t give him / her what’s wanted?  The resentful, demon-trafficking youth undergoes “a sad and deplorable condition” and eventually forfeits his soul on a “dreadful night,” a fate meant to provide a vivid cautionary warning “against temptation.”  This is one of those remarkable earlier titles where essentially the whole story is outlined in the title and sub-title, perhaps just in case a young reader is tempted not to read the whole book.

Modern reproduction of the title page of the 1624 Dr. Faustus quarto.  Compare this with the 1616 quarto’s printing and also the other variations.

The moral is once again meant to be clear.  Added to the usual Faustus moral about blasphemy and dealing with the devil is another familiar moral often found in children’s books from this era: the  punishment of a disobedient child.  Moral works of the time didn’t flinch in scaring children about the possible consequences of disobedience to parents or teachers.  So added to a message about God-faring or moral behavior here is the forceful reminder to be an obedient child.  And at least one later version sought to extend the didactic beyond children: A Timely Warning to Rash and Disobedient Persons, which appeared in a number of editions as did the the A Timely Warning to Rash and Disobedient Children; judging from the number of editions, the Timely Warnings were popular books — at least with adults, generally the ones doing the actual book buying. 

Versions of the Faust story remained popular in England well into the nineteenth century, appearing in the form of books, chapbooks, and updated versions of the play.

Fairly typical of the chapbook-stye publications is a twenty-four page Glasgow publication, apparently from the 1840s, titled: History of Dr. Faustus: Shewing his Wicked Life and Horrid Death, and How He Sold Himself to the Devil, to Have Power for 24 Years to Do What He Pleased… with the Assistance of Mephistopheles; with an Account of How the Devil Came to him at the End of 24 Years and Tore Him to Pieces. That’s a mouthful of a title once, again more or less summing up the whole story.

Upper wrapper of History of Dr. Faustus… (Glasgow: [ca. 1840?]) (Ex 3580.999 v.29)

The cover title is undated and has only “printed for the booksellers” in terms of an imprint, but this Faustus was apparently published as part of a series of popular folk- and fairy-tales, such as Beauty & the Beast and Sleeping Beauty. The woodcut illustration is relatively uninspiring, and I’m not even sure if it’s supposed to depict Faustus or Mephistopheles; it may just be a “stock” woodblock that the publisher had on-hand and used to provide a visual element to spice up the text and get potential buyers’ attention?

More visually striking is Dean & Munday’s six pence version of: The Remarkable Life of Dr. Faustus: Relating the Diabolical Means by which He Raised the Devil to Whom He Sold his Soul and Body on Condition that Lucifer Should Give Him Unlimited Power for Twenty-four Years…  Unlike the demonic depiction of the soul-claiming devil in some earlier versions we’ve looked at, this frontispiece presents Mephistopheles as he reappears to Faustus, deceptively clothed “like a Gray Friar” after his initial devilish appearance terrifies Faustus.  But also clearly visible in the background are flying demons, which the reader can readily see, unlike the duped Faustus perhaps.  And interesting aspect of dual perspective conveyed through illustration?

The Remarkable Life of Dr. Faustus… Dean & Munday, [ca. 1830?] (GAX Cruik 18–.3 )

While this edition seems to have been aimed at a general audience, Dean & Munday was a prominent publisher of short children’s books of the time, in particular “toy books” aimed at children, which typically combined numerous hand-colored illustrations like this one with abridged text.  (The publisher’s advertisement on the lower wrapper lists Dr Faustus under “six-pence each titles,” not under “children’s books, colored plates, 6 d each.”)  The text of this version presents an abridgement of the original 1592 text from The History of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus over 250 years after the original publication, the feat of textual longevity I alluded to above.  As so often was the case with children’s literature, essentially the same content was repeatedly repackaged and “freshened up” with new illustrations to appeal to the market.

But some aspects of the text were jazzed up a bit over time, often adding more “theatrical” elements and details, and some sensational details, often not meant for children (although no doubt enjoyed by some).  After the 1592 version’s concluding “they heard him no more” lines, Dean & Munday’s Remarkable Life and other some nineteenth-century versions add the lines:

But when it was day, the students… arose and went into the hall in the which they left Doctor Faustus, where notwithstanding they found no Faustus, but all the hall lay besprinckled with blood, his brains cleaving to the wall; for the Devil had beaten him from one wall against another. In one corner lay his eyes, in another his teeth, a pitiful and fearful sight to behold… Lastly, they came into the yard where they found his body lying on the horse dung, most monstrously torn, and fearful to behold, for his head and all his joints were dashed in pieces.

In terms of delightful garishness of illustration, my favorite of Princeton’s Faustus illustrations might have to be the one used as a fold-out frontispiece in Thomas Richardson and Son’s The Remarkable Life of Dr. Faustus, a German Astrologer and Enchanter: Relating the Means Adopted by Him to raise the Devil, Who Gave him Extraordinary Magical Powers, on Condition that He Should Have his Soul and Body at the End of Twenty-four Years...   That mouthful of a title — not even the full version! — is more than matched by the hand-colored engraved fold-out, I think.

Title page and fold-out frontispiece of Richardson and Son’s The Remarkable Life of Dr. Faustus… (Derby, [between 1820 & 1840?] (3580.999 v.23)

A terrifying horned devil with fabulous scaly-looking wings sizes Faustus (now an “astrologer,” not a scholar) by the neck, while a serpent twines itself around Faustus’ body, and a chorus of demons worthy of Hieronymus Bosch cheers on the devil in fiendish delight.  Advances in printing technology technology allowed larger and more detailed illustrations in cheap nineteenth books than in the earlier publications ones we’ve already looked at.  And perhaps the sensational presentation here was also meant to cater to a public taste fed by theatrical spectacles in the nineteenth century, when far more elaborate costumes, lighting, and special effects were possible than in Marlowe’s time, when special effects at the relatively plain, outdoor public theater stages were limited to trapdoors, smoke-pots, and rumbling metal thunder, and perhaps a few fireworks.  By the nineteenth century, audiences and readers expected more than plain text and simple woodcuts.  But the message was much the same as in the seventeenth-century The History of the Damnable Life and indeed the text was much the same in this nineteenth-century version too.

And in case you’re wondering the full title of this edition is: The Remarkable Life of Dr. Faustus, a German Astrologer and Enchanter: Relating the Means Adopted by Him to Raise the Devil, Who Gave him Extraordinary Magical Powers, on Condition that He Should Have his Soul and Body at the End of Twenty-four Years; his Various Conversations, Interviews, and Wonderful Events with his Deputy, the Spirit Mephostophiles [sic]; with his Journey to Mount Caucasus, Particulars of his Conjurations and Enchantments; with the Ceremonies Belonging to the Operations of Necromancy; the Bonds; and the Horrible Death Inflicted on Him by the Devil at the Expiration of the Term.  With a title like that, it’s a wonder that the printer had any type left in his case to print the rest of the book!