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Henry Beston's Fairy Tales

In early 1919, Beston commenced another writing project, albeit one far removed from his war correspondence—indeed, one unlike anything else he had written before. As he wrote to his friend Luther Neff, the new book was to be “a kind of wonder book a la Alice in Wonderland. Weary of Armageddon, I fled as far away from it as I could. You’ll find the sea in it…romantic galleons, wild dark coasts, enchanted surges, palaces on the mountains on the ocean floor.” Some of the ideas for the fairy tales that Beston was working on for the new book had probably begun to take form in Beston’s mind several months earlier, but it was not until early 1919 that he began to seriously consider the possibility of putting together a children’s book. He astutely took advantage of his Atlantic Monthly connection and submitted a book proposal to The Atlantic Monthly Press, which was readily accepted.

The illustrator chosen by the publisher for the book was Maurice E. “Jake” Day, a twenty-six year old artist from Damariscotta, Maine. The choice was a fortuitous one; not only because Jake Day was an immensely talented artist and illustrator at the outset of a brilliant career, but because he and Beston immediately formed a productive literary and artistic partnership and a fast friendship that would become one of the most important of Beston’s life and career. As Beston finished the revisions for each chapter he would immediately ship the story to Day for the accompanying illustration.

In November 1919 Beston’s first book of fairy tales appeared under the title of The Firelight Fairy Book. The collection consisted of thirteen original stories that have more in common with the beautiful, finely-wrought fairy tales written by Hans Christian Andersen than they do with the bawdier, more gruesome tales of the Brothers Grimm.

While Beston’s stories are usually structured in accordance with the familiar archetypal forms and characters of the traditional fairy tale, there are some intriguingly contemporary themes built into several of the tales. In “The Seller of Dreams,” the aunt of the protagonist is a courageous and steadfast woman, who frequently reminds her nephew, “there’s nothing that a woman of determination and energy can’t accomplish.” In “The Enchanted Elm,” Beston develops a proto-environmental theme that is of particular interest given the turn toward nature writing he would take just a few years later.

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