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Last of the Victorians or First of the Moderns? Andrew Lang’s Original Fairy Tales Andrew Lang Commemorative Lecture (Public Lecture)

The Andrew Lang Commemorative Lecture was founded in 1926 by a bequest by Sir Peter Redford Scott Lang, Regius Professor of Mathematics 1879 to 1921 and a commemorative Andrew Lang Lecture was held annually by the University for decades from the 1920s. The lecture is now made every second or third year and the speaker delivers a lecture related to Andrew Lang or his work or on one of the subjects on which he wrote.

Anthropology has a long history in St Andrews. Andrew Lang (MA LLD St Andrews) was a central member of the group of Scottish anthropological thinkers that included John McLennan, JG Frazer and William Robertson Smith, who came to the fore in the later 19th century. Lang began his prolific academic and literary career at the University in the 1860s. He then pursued classical studies at Oxford, where he was a Fellow of Merton College for seven years. Lang lectured and published on anthropology and folklore for five decades until his death in 1912: ‘The wizard of St Andrews is no more’ wrote anthropologist Alexander Goldenweiser in his obituary for Lang. The University of St Andrews holds a significant collection of Andrew Lang’s and other anthropological works of the period.

At the time of his death, Lang was one of the most famous writers and collectors of fairy tales in Europe. This reputation rested in part upon the phenomenally successful series of fairy tale anthologies he edited between 1889 and 1910 known as the Coloured Fairy Books. But as is less well known today Lang was also the author of a series of once-popular novels for children that drew upon fairy tales and folklore in their plots. These included the sinister story of fairy abduction in the Scottish Borders, The Gold of Fairnilee (1888), and the extravagant tales of the fairy court of Pantouflia, Prince Prigio (1889) and Prince Ricardo (1893).

On the occasion of the 2020 Andrew Lang Lecture, Andrew Teverson returns to these now rather neglected novels to ask whether it is time to re-evaluate Lang’s original writing for children. For several decades, the critical consensus has been that Lang was less successful at writing original works than he was at repackaging existing folk narratives. As a prominent example of this consensus, J R R Tolkien, in his Andrew Lang Lecture of March 1939, praised Lang’s fairy books, which had formed part of his own youthful reading, but criticised the original works for being overly-self-conscious, for failing to create a coherent secondary world, and for having “an eye on the faces of other clever people over the heads of his child-audience”.

But is it time to question this now sedimented critical view? Were Tolkien’s observations on Lang fully disinterested, or was he influenced by his reflections on his own writing career as he completed The Hobbit and turned to The Lord of the Rings? And what may be learned from rereading Lang in the light of more recent developments in the fictional treatment of fairy tale by writers such as A S Byatt, Salman Rushdie and Phillip Pullman? In short, was Lang the last of the Victorian fairy writers, destined to be overshadowed by the generation of children’s fantasy writers represented by Tolkien and C S Lewis, or is there also something in Lang’s work that anticipates modern – and indeed postmodern – treatments of the fairy tale?

These are the questions that will shape Andrew Teverson’s reflection on Lang and the fairy tale in the 2020 lecture. Andrew Teverson PhD is Professor of Cultural History and Critical Thinking at the University of the Arts, London. His recent publications include the edited collection The Fairy Tale World (Routledge Worlds Series, 2019) and a two-volume critical edition of the scholarly writings of Andrew Lang (with Alexandra Warwick and Leigh Wilson, Edinburgh University Press, 2015). Currently he is completing a critical edition of the children’s fictions of Andrew Lang, due for publication with Edinburgh University Press in 2020, and is editor of the sixth volume of Bloomsbury’s Cultural History of Fairy Tale (The Modern Age). Andrew is a member of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research and is on the advisory board for the Chichester Centre for Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction.

There will be a reception after the lecture in Lower College Hall.

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