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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

This solace recurs in reference to the large


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[Sidenote: The fairy tale.]

One of the greatest solaces of the writer of this book, and, he would fain hope, something of a consolation to its readers, has been the possibility, and indeed advisability, of abstention from certain stock literary controversies, or at worst of dismissing them with very brief mention. This solace recurs in reference to the large, vague, and hotly debated subject of folklore and fairy stories, their connection, and the origin of the latter. It is true that "the pleasure gives way to a savour of sorrow," to adopt a charming phrase of Mr. Dobson's, when I think of the amiable indignation which the absence of what I shall not say, and perhaps still more the presence of some things that I shall say, would have caused in my friend, and his friend, the late Mr. Andrew Lang.[220] But the irreparable is always with us. Despite the undoubted omnipresence of the folk-story, with its "fairy" character in the general sense, I have always wanted more proof than I have ever received, that the thing is of Western rather than of Eastern origin, and that our Western stories of the kind, in so far as they affected literature before a very recent period, are independent. But I attach no particular value to this opinion, and it will influence nothing that I say here. So with a few more half-words to the wise, as that Mme. d'Aulnoy had been in Spain, that the Crusades

took place in the eleventh century, that, independently thereof, Scandinavians had been "Varangians" very early at Constantinople, etc. etc., let us come to the two great literary facts--the chorus of fairy tale-telling proper at the end of the century (of which the coryphaei are the lady already mentioned and Perrault), and the epoch-making translation of _The Arabian Nights_ by Galland.

[Sidenote: Its _general_ characteristics--the happy ending.]

In a certain sense, no doubt, the fairy tale may be said to be merely a variety of the age-old _fabliau_ and _nouvelle_. But it is, for literary purposes, a distinctly and importantly new variety--new not merely in subject, even in the widest possible sense of that rather disputable (or at least disputed) word, but in that _nescio quid_ between subject and treatment for which I know no better term than the somewhat vague one "atmosphere." It has the priceless quality of what may be called good childishness; it gives not merely Fancy but Imagination the freest play, and, till it has itself created one, it is free from any convention. It continued, indeed, always free from those "previous" conventions which are so intolerable. For it is constantly forgotten that a convention in its youth is often positively healthy, and a convention in the prime of its life a very tolerable thing. It is the _old_ conventions which, as Mahomet rashly acknowledged about something else (saving himself, however, most dexterously afterwards), cannot be tolerated in Paradise. Moreover, besides creating of necessity a sort of fresh dialect in which it had to be told, and producing a set of personages entirely unhackneyed, it did an immense service by introducing a sort of etiquette, quite different from the conventions above noticed,--a set of manners, as it may almost be called, which had the strongest and most beneficial influence--though, like all strong and good things, it might be perverted--on fiction generally. In this all sorts of nice things, as in the original prescription for what girls are made of, were included--variety, gaiety, colour, surprise, a complete contempt of the contemptible, or of that large part of it which contains priggishness, propriety, "prunes, and prism" generally. Moreover (and here I fear that the above promised abstinence from the contentious must be for a little time waived) it confirmed a great principle of novel and romance alike, that if you can you should "make a good end," as, _teste_ Romance herself, Guinevere did, though the circumstances were melancholy.


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