Celtic Fairy Tales

Celtic Fairy Tales

Joseph Jacobs: Celtic Fairy Tales (first published in 1891)

Many thanks to Digi-Book Kiadó for sending me the book!

Many people thought that fairy tales are just stories for children, read in the evenings, featuring fairies. In fact, they include not only the legends and actions of the fairies, but also various folk heroes and fantastic events appearing in them or they explain the emergence of characteristic natural formations. In Europe, many tales have the same roots, but the specialities of different countries and people also appear in each version. I’ve already written about these tales in an earlier post – there you can also read about the publisher’s previous collection of fairy tales titled by Scottish fairy tales.

The collector of this volume, Joseph Jacobs, was born in Australia and later studied in England. He was a folklorist, translator, literary critic, sociologist and historian, but best known for his work as a folktale collector and publisher.

This collection first published in 1891. Jacobs’ main concept was that he collect the most characteristic tales of the Celts instead of the standard, well-known tales, so he wrote down the stories spread through oral tradition from English-speaking Celtic peasants exclusively. In many cases, he reworked these because the tales were usually really sad, and he also wanted to bring in a sufficient amount of humour and romance to make them fun while preserving Celtic features. He also simplified the language many times, but still left some Celtic terms in, so the stories seem even more authentic and “exotic” in my opinion.

Jacobs had a huge collection to choose from: he estimates that the number of Celtic folk tales exceeds two thousand, but only 250 of these have a printed form. Among the tales, there are some that can be the oldest pieces of modern European folk tales, but there are also those that come from the Continent, such as “Fair, Brown and Trembling” which is a Celtic Cinderella story. Celtic tales also have great importance in that respect, that they are the westernmost point in Europe, so the stories that have come here can no longer change, this is their final version. Most of the 26 tales in the volume come from Ireland, but it also includes stories from Scottish, Welsh and Cornish, as well as a transcript of an English poem. Some tales, of which both Scottish and Irish versions are known, have been reworked by the author to retain both national specificities.

For me, the “story in the story” type tales were very interesting like the “Conal Yellowclaw” or “The Story-teller at Fault” which are of Indian origin, the Celtic details were later added. I also really liked tales in which men don’t always save women, but vice versa: husbands escape because of their wife’s ingenuity (A Legend of Knockmany). My favorite was “The Story of Deirdre”, which is very sad, but very beautiful and lyrical as well as similar to Tolkien’s mythology – not coincidentally, since Tolkien’s specialty was also Old English myths and legends. This first Hungarian edition of the collection is very beautiful: we can enjoy the stories with the cover of Cintia Vaspöri and the translation by Dr. László Bujtor.