Monday, 5 May 2008

Chronicles of Pantouflia by Andrew Lang

I grew up with these two stories, Prince Prigio and Prince Ricardo, but I mislaid my copy and this was the first time I have read them for well over 20 years. My edition is an old one, dating back to 1943, and with the original illustrations, which I like very much. The picture here is of King Prigio flying to the moon.
Although they were written in the 30s, the style is Victorian, and very much "after" Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring - we are actually told that Prigio's family is descended from the characters in that book, and this is one of the ways in which Lang creates the atmosphere of history for children, rather than fiction. He also footnotes particular terms, and comments on the motives and behaviour of his characters. There is a supposed dryness to the style, in keeping with the writing of history, but since the events are frequently farcical, the characters endowed with suitably human flaws and the story romps along at a brisk pace, the overall tone is more one of subdued hilarity.
In Prince Prigio, the usual fairytale catastrophe is compounded by the Queen's refusal to believe in fairies, with the result that none of the fairies are invited to the christening. Most of the fairies – who all turn up, though the Queen denies that she can see them – are forgiving, and make the traditional kind of gift, but one wishes him "too clever", so that he grows into the kind of boy who infuriates everyone. His father, desperate to get rid of him, decrees that the heir to the throne will be the one of his sons who can perform the task of killing the legendary Firedrake, but the prince, as much of a rationalist as his mother, refuses to go on the grounds that the beast doesn't exist. So his younger brothers Enrico and Alphonso each set off in turn to be incinerated.
How Prigio is eventually persuaded to tackle the Firedrake is the meat of the first story, while in the second, his son, the heroic and dashing Prince Ricardo, must learn to settle down and recognise the value of both people and talents that he takes for granted. I was pleased to find that my childhood pleasure in the stories remains undiminished: I enjoy the humour, I still admire Princess Jacqueline, who plays a major part in the saving of Prince Ricardo, and I still feel rather sorry for the Firedrake. I'm not sure that I would rush to recommend them for children, unless they had already enjoyed Lang's various Fairy Books (Blue, Violet etc), but they might still give a good deal of pleasure if read out loud. I'll end with an extract, so that people can judge for themselves:
"It is an awkward brute to tackle, " the king said, "but you are the oldest, my lad; go where glory awaits you! Put on your armour, and be off with you!"
This the king said, hoping that either the Firedrake would roast Prince Prigio alive (which he could easily do, as I have said; for he is all over as hot as a red-hot poker), or that, if the prince succeeded, at least his country would be freed from the monster.
But the prince, who was lying on the sofa doing sums in compound division, for fun, said in the politest way:
"Thanks to the education your majesty has given me, I have learned that the Firedrake, like the siren, the fairy, and so forth, is a fabulous animal which does not exist. But even granting, for the sake of argument, that there is a Firedrake, your majesty is well aware that there is no kind of use in sending me. It is always the eldest son who goes out first, and comes to grief on these occasions, and it is always the third son who succeeds. Send Alphonso" (this was the youngest brother) "and he will do the trick at once. At least, if he fails, it will be most unusual, and Enrico can try his luck."


  1. I enjoyed all the colour fairy books when I was young, but I don't know this one! It sounds like a wonderful tale. And the illustrations are very atmospheric...

  2. It seems no matter how many books I read there are always more I haven't read and would like to read. I haven't heard of this book before but it sounds fun. I did enjoy the various Fairy Books as a child. It's so good when books you enjoyed as a child turn out to be just as good when you re-read them now.

  3. A couple of years ago - before I found my copy - I couldn't see any sign of these two stories on Google, but now there seem to be some editions available. I'm very glad they haven't disappeared altogether.