Tuesday, November 15, 2011

When Irish Elves Are Smiling

by Stephen J. Gertz

They offered a cow for each leg of her cow, but she would not accept that offer.

 When Irish elves are smiling
‘Tis an Arthur Rackham Spring
With the lilt of Irish fairies
You can hear the goblins Sing

The waves of all the worlds seemed to whirl
past them in one huge green cataract.

"Arthur Rackham's two great books of the 'Twenties were James Stephens' Irish Fairy Tales of 1920 and Shakespeare's Tempest of 1926...Beyond the softness of style and inventiveness, the most striking thing about the colour plates for Irish Fairy Tales is the felicitous and appropriate use of Celtic borders" (Gettings, Arthur Rackham, p. 143).

They stood outside, filled with savagery and terror.

The reviews for both author and artist were uniformly glowing, i.e.:

"Children may enjoy it, but like Arthur Rackham's exquisite illustrations, it will be fully appreciated only by more sophisticated readers" (The Review, Vol. 3, 1920).

"James Stephens' writing has the gift of everlasting youth. Arthur Rackham's drawing have inherent magic. Wherefore the two are fortunately met in a new book, primarily for children, but also full of appeal to grown-ups with a sense of humor" (The Independent, December 25, 1920).

She looked with angry woe at the straining and snarling horde below.

Dublin-born poet and novelist James Stephens (1882-1950) was a member of the Irish Literary Revival and co-founder of the Irish Review best known for The Crock of Gold (1912). He campaigned for a free Irish state. He wrote many retellings of Irish myths and fairy tales, The Crock of Gold amongst them. His interpretations are noteworthy for their humor and lyricism.

My life became a ceaseless scurry and wound and
escape, a burden and anguish of watchfulness.

Irish Fairy Tales is a retelling of ten Irish folktales set in a wooded, Medieval Ireland filled with larger-than-life hunters, warriors, kings, and fairies. Many stories concern the Fianna and their captain, Fionn mac Uail, from the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology.

This copy is in a contemporary binding in full forest green crushed morocco (possibly by Stikeman & Co.) with triple fillets and tooled borders surrounding an inner panel with corner and side devices, broad gilt dentelles, and top edge gilt.

[RACKHAM, Arthur, illustrator]. STEPHENS, James. Irish Fairy Tales. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd, 1920. First trade edition. Quarto (8 1/4 x 6 3/8 in; 210 x 160 mm). x, 318 pp. Sixteen full color plates with captioned tissue guards, twenty-one drawings in black and white.

Lattimore and Haskell, p. 52. Riall, p. 138.

Read the full text of James Stephens Irish Fairy Tales here.

Images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, currently offering this title, with our thanks.

Stephen J. Gertz is a contributor to The Journal of the Arthur Rackham Society.

Of related interest:

Arthur Rackham Drawing Found in Unrecorded Louis Wain Book.

The Riddle of Arthur Rackham's "Faithful Friends" Solved?

Peter Pan: Still a Boy at 150.

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