October 15, 2010

Fantasy Tales of Frank R. Stockton

        I recently finished reading The Storyteller's Pack: A Frank R. Stockton Reader, and Ting-a-Ling.  I read them because I had seen Stockton mentioned as one of the first fantasy writers in the US, and I was curious.  Stockton was born in 1834, and worked as a wood engraver before switching over to writing full time.  (See?  Block printing and writing fantasy make a natural combination!)  Actually, Stockton wrote a variety of gently humorous works, not just fantasy.  Some were intended for children, some for adults; some were adventure, some rather philosophical, some satirical.  His most famous work, or at least the only one that I had previously known, was that staple of the high school short story unit "The Lady, or the Tiger?"  That's the one about the young man who's sentenced to choose between two doors, behind one of which is a lethal tiger, and behind the other of which is a woman he must marry.  I never particularly liked the story, partly because of its gimmicky non-ending, which I feel is just laziness on the part of the author, whose job it is to tell the story, and partly because, of course, I like happy endings, and this story would be hard-pressed to have one.  At any rate, I was unfamiliar with any of Stockton's other work, and my library didn't have much.  However, a lot of his work is available on Project Gutenberg.  I was pleased to find that I enjoyed a number of Stockton's tales.  Here are my favorites.
        "The Queen's Museum" - in which an entire populace ends up in jail for the crime of failing to be interested in the museum their Queen has so single-mindedly filled with her own favorite subject.  Luckily, with the help of a Stranger, a Hermit's Pupil, and a Band of Robbers, the museum can be emptied of its boring contents and refilled with more interesting stuff so that the Queen's subjects can finally be free.
        "Prince Hassak's March" - in which the high-and-mighty Prince Hassak, on his way to a neighboring country,  endures delays, imprisonment, arithmetic, jail-breaking, enforced nucleus-ship, silly outfits, and eventual Lessons Learned.  The under-quota jailer who assigns each of his guests a crime, and the irrepressible Jolly-cum-pop are particularly amusing.
        "The Banished King" - in which the King sets out to discover why his country is in such bad shape, but, due to the unfortunate failure of cell phones to have been invented yet, is forced to have a continuous line of messengers strung out behind him at intervals of 100 yards, so that no matter how far he travels from his palace, he can always send messages to the Queen simply by shouting down the line.  I particularly enjoy how he has to converse with the helpful sphinx without ever actually answering her directly, because everyone knows that people always get into trouble if they try to answer a sphinx's questions.
        "The Philopena" - in which a Prince and Princess find their childhood playmates, with a little help from an Inquisitive Dwarf, a Gryphoness, a Water Sprite, an Absolute Fool, and a ship full of Amazons.
        Ting-a-Ling - Stockton's first book, composed of 4 more-or-less unconnected fairy tales, all at least mentioning the fairy named Ting-a-ling.  Stockton is obviously influenced by Arabian Nights in the vaguely Middle Eastern setting and the stock of royalty, slaves, magicians, and people rushing around waving scimitars.  The opening story is quite gruesome in the matter of decapitations and other untimely ends, although Stockton seems confident that neither he nor any tender readers will be upset by this sort of inconvenience.  The stories are a slightly odd mix of standard fairy tale conventions, understated satire, slapstick humor, subtle social commentary, the aforementioned comic violence, and charming invention.  I wasn't utterly thrilled by the book, but there were sufficient moments of humor and clever twists that I found it enjoyable, on the whole.

        At his worst, Stockton's nineteenth century narration is measured and methodical to the point of plodding, and he presents as soul-testing dilemmas troubles that seem to me easily surmountable.  At his best, however, his whimsical imaginings have a gentle matter-of-factness, and he satirizes human foibles such as arrogance and selfishness with a wry understanding.  His characters and creatures always seem perfectly reasonable, even in the midst of the silliest folly, and he makes even the most outrageous of plots seem delightfully civilized.  All of his fantasy tales were interesting to me from a historical perspective - these were the stories that L. Frank Baum would have read with his children - but the best are definitely worth reading for their own sake.  With the magic of Project Gutenberg, I plan to read more of Stockton's fairy tales.

[Picture: title page of Ting-A-Ling, by Edmund Birckhead Bensell, 1916.]

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