Halloween Treats?: H. J. Ford’s Illustrations for Andrew Lang’s “Blue Fairy Book”

Halloween Stories & Images

Each holiday has its symbols and icons, but few can compete with Halloween, with its vivid cast of ghosts, goblins, witches, full moons, black cats, and the legion of supporting figures–all reborn for modern festive holiday amusement from a cast of spirit-world characters that originally had much less benevolent connotations.

"Halloween" detail from the frontispiece to the Blue Poetry Book by Andrew Lang (Longmans, 1891)

“Halloween” detail from the frontispiece to the Blue Poetry Book by Andrew Lang (Longmans, 1891)

Halloween’s origins date from a time when most people believed, quite literally, in the existence of fairies, sprites, ghosts, and supernatural beings lurking “out there” in the darkness.  Its antecedents include the Celtic end-of-summer rituals of Samhain, meant to ward off demons and evil spirits, other festive customs and holidays mitigating the gathering darkness of winter, and, of course, the early Christian religious holiday. All Saints Day–or the evening before a hallowed day, Hallow’s eve.  But in much the same way that fairies, giants, talking animals, and magical folklore creatures of all shapes and forms have been appropriated into the realm of childhood imagination, so too has Halloween.

Andrew Lang: Folklorist and Fairy Tale Anthologist

Andrew Lang (1844-1912) certainly looms large as one of the nineteenth-century figures who helped to integrate folklore and fairy tales into the canon of children’s literature.  Academic, writer, cultural anthropologist, folklorist, historian, translator, poet, novelist, and both a writer and compiler of children’s stories, Lang was an intellectual polyglot and something of a Victorian oddball in an era known for literary eccentricity.

A student of the famed Benjamin Jowett at Oxford’s BalliolCollege, Lang gained a First, was named a Fellow of Merton College, only to resign seven years later, following his marriage, and move to London for a writing career.

His output was prodigious. In Andrew Lang, Eleanor Langstaff puts Lang’s total literary and scholarly output at 120 books, 150 books edited or contributed to, and thousands of articles (Boston: Twayne, 1978, p. 149).

Lang became interested in folklore and anthropology at a time when both disciplines were in their formative stages as areas of study, and he made major contributions to scholarship in these areas, authoring a number of scholarly works and collections of folk tales.  Viewed in retrospect, these books suggest themes and ideas that would soon manifest themselves in Lang’s own collections of folk stories and fairy tales for children, as well as in works he authored himself.

In Myth, Ritual, and Religion (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1887 ) for instance, Lang explored the relation of myth and religion various cultures as part of what he termed an effort to “understand how, and when, and why the ancestors of the civilized races filled the blank of their past by tales about bestial gods and godlike beasts” (p. 1).

Cover of Book of Dreams & Ghosts (Longmans, 1897), suggesting distinctly Coleridgean hauntings.

Cover of Book of Dreams & Ghosts (Longmans, 1897), suggesting distinctly Coleridgean hauntings. (Cotsen 33351)

The Book of Dreams and Ghosts (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1897), a “collection  of evidence” with multiple chapters on ghosts, “bogies,” and hauntings, Lang’s prefatory remarks provide historical and cultural context for this phenomenon.  Discussing ghosts, apparitions, and hallucinations, Lang referred to the “old doctrine of ‘ghosts,’ [which] regarded them as actual spirits of the living and the dead … a view of the simplest philosophy of the savage.” (p. vi).

Next he outlined how such apparitions had later been regarded as “the work of deceitful devils” by Reformation writers, how such “phantasms” and “apparitions” had been dismissed by “the common-sense of the eighteenth century,” and how such “hallucinatory appearances” were being addressed by “modern science” in the nineteenth-century and taken seriously as psychological phenomenon requiring explanation by investigators of the stature of William James, whose 1890 Principles of Psychology Lang cites.  Sometimes a ghost story was not just a ghost story.

Lang’s Colour Fairy Books

Cover of Lang's Green Fairy Book (Longmans, 1892)

Cover of Lang’s Green Fairy Book (Longmans, 1892)

These other works make it clear that Lang’s series of twelve different Colour Fairy Books, issued individually from 1889-1910, must be seen not only as collections of stories for children, but also as documentation of popular culture on a world-wide scale, guided by scholarly principles.  Lang, after all, included a citation of the source at the end of most selections in the Fairy Books, a feature presumably lost on younger readers.

And the range of materials collected is strikingly global.  In addition to sixty French fairy tales overall, (including those of d’Aulnoy and Perrault), the Fairy Books include fifty Scandinavian tales, as well as those originating from Africa, Japan, Germany, Hungary, the Middle East, and Native Americans.

Cover of the Yellow Fairy Book (Longmans, 1894)

Cover of the Yellow Fairy Book (Longmans, 1894)

In his preface to the Blue Fairy Book, the first of these books, Lang himself noted adaptations from Apollodorus, Simonides, and Pindar “by the editor,” as well as the somewhat surprising inclusion of a popular version of the “Voyage to Lilliput” from Gulliver’s Travels.

The Blue Fairy Book & Ford’s “Halloween” Illustrations


Cover of the Blue Fairy Book (Longmans, 1889)

Fairy tales and folklore generally involve the fantastical, the supernatural, and the otherworldly.  But even so, a number of Henry Justice Ford’s wood engraved illustrations in the Blue Fairy Book conjure up the idea of Halloween.

Before we even open the book, the uncredited, gilt-stamped design on the its midnight blue upper cover, presents a striking image of a broomstick-riding witch flying in front of a full moon.

This design seems intended to evoke generally the “phantasms, ghosts, and apparitions” from Lang’s spirit world that lurk in the pages within.  And it stands apart from cover designs of other, later, Fairy Books, which often feature fairies or versions of illustrations from a story within.

The Blue Fairy Book’s second tale, “Prince Hyacinth and the Dear Little Princess,” tells the story of a king seeking the hand of a princess foretold to marry only the man clever enough to tread on the tail of her beloved cat.  In Lang’s narrative, the cat, not surprisingly, “arches his back” at the potential malefactor.

Illustration from "Prince Hyacinth and the Dear Little Princess (Blue Fairy Book, p. 12), with Ford's signature on lower right.

Illustration from “Prince Hyacinth and the Dear Little Princess (Blue Fairy Book, p. 12), with Ford’s signature on lower right.

Recognizing the dramatic potential of the scene, illustrator Ford goes beyond the text and shows us is a black cat in the classic “Halloween pose”–hissing, back arched, and ears back–being pursued somewhat comically by the king, toe-dancing after the tail.  Adding to the humor, the beautiful princess seems so uninterested by the proceedings that she seems to almost doze off in boredom.

While Ford could not have anticipated the subsequent development of modern Halloween iconography that his illustration calls to mind today, the association of hissing black cats, black magic, and other-worldly affairs was traditional.  Cats have had a long history of association with magic, magicians, and the supernatural, and cat abuse of various kinds occurs relatively often in fairy tales, folklore, and nursery stories.

Another black cat–again the product of the artist’s inspiration–looms in one of Ford’s illustrations for the “Yellow Dwarf,” a tale from d’Aulnoy.  The narrative relates how the Yellow Dwarf, “mounted on a great Spanish cat” (presumably a Spanish Lynx), springs out for battle “with a terrible noise,” and proceeds to “set spurs to his cat, which yelled horribly, and leapt hither and thither–terrifying everybody except the brave King.”

Ford's "Spanish cat" from the "Yellow Dwarf" (Blue Fairy Book, p. 40)

Ford’s “Spanish cat” from the “Yellow Dwarf” (Blue Fairy Book, p. 40)

As Lang continues the story, the sun becomes “as red as blood … thunder crashed and lightning seemed as if it must burn up everything … two basilisks appeared … and fire flew from their mouths and ears until they looked like flaming furnaces.”   A terrifying scene–but one Ford opts not to depict, choosing instead the scene of the dwarf actually emerging from the box … astride, not a Lynx, but a wide-eyed, screeching black cat, claws at the ready.

In terms of other imagery apropos of Halloween, Ford presents a demonic scene to accompany “Why the Sea is Salt,” a tale about a poor, hungry brother tasked to take a ham to Hell–“Dead Man’s Hall,” in Lang’s version.  Lang’s narrative describes how “people great and small,” presumably demonic, haggle with him over the ham there; but Ford renders a much more visual and dramatic scene–a smoky charnel-house room full of demons, replete with one holding a trident, a scene that enhances the fearfulness of the scene considerably.

Demons from "Why the Sea is Salt" (Blue Fairy Book, p. 137)

Demons from “Why the Sea is Salt” (Blue Fairy Book, p. 137)

The exact nature of Lang’s collaboration with Ford, the principal illustrator of the Blue Fairy Book, is known, but Eleanor Langstaff notes that he “worked with the illustrators” in his role as general editor readying the Fairy Books for publication.  Whatever their  relationship, Ford’s work complements Lang’s narratives and extends them, as these three examples demonstrate.  Taking elements of the folktales, and reworking them with a vivid imagination in a manner evoking the Pre-Raphaelites, Ford’s illustrations develop Lang’s themes, sometimes in a manner most apt for Halloween.

A midsummer night's dream, or nightmare, in the nighttime sky? Ford's frontispiece from Lang's anthology of verse, the Blue Poetry Book (Longmans, 1891), depicting a scene worthy of any Halloween

A midsummer night’s dream, or nightmare, in the nighttime sky? Ford’s frontispiece from Lang’s anthology of verse, the Blue Poetry Book (Longmans, 1891), depicting a scene worthy of any Halloween