Once Long Ago, the book I read as a child until it fell apart, is the book I have chosen for my first review.
Once Long Ago: Folk and Fairy Tales of the World, first published in 1962 by Golden Pleasure Books, is a collection of 70 traditional tales from 49 different cultures retold by Roger Lancelyn Green and illustrated by Vojtěch Kubašta.
As well as compiling myths, legends, and fairy tales from around the world, Green was a biographer of children’s writers and a member of the Oxford literary group, the Inklings, along with J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. In Once Long Ago, Green’s writing retains the fairy tale format of earlier versions while creating a magic that appealed to me as a child, and still does as an adult. My old favourites, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Snow White, are all included and I quickly gained new favourites: the Australian tale, The Bunyip, the Flemish tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and the Norse tale, Why the Sea is Salt.
I have read questions online about how accurate Green may have been in writing stories from cultures other than his own. We have to remember that this book was published in 1962 and to have a volume of such diverse tales from a wide range of cultures is to be commended. I am choosing to believe that Green researched these stories thoroughly and took due care and time when creating his versions of them. The English story, The Three Bears, does support this view since there is no Goldilocks in sight. Instead, the original character, a little old woman, is the antagonist.
Not only is this book a fine example of great storytelling, it is also a work of art. Born in Vienna, Kubašta moved to Prague when he was four. He studied architecture and civil engineering but soon moved into his life-long career as a commercial artist and book designer. He is perhaps most famous for his pop-up books. His illustrations in Once Long Ago are bold, bright and filled with emotion: the image of the old witch on her raft of snakes in the Armenian tale Zoulvisia is impressively evil, the arrogance of the chicken in the Spanish tale The Half-Chick is cleverly depicted, and my favourite image of all, that of the girl in the English tale Coat of Rushes accepting her new silver dress from the fairy, is hauntingly beautiful.
A few years ago, for a significant birthday, I treated myself to my own copy of the book to the tune of $NZ500. It may seem odd that I am reviewing a book now classed as “hard to find” and costing a fair penny to buy should you find a copy. What I want to illustrate is the need for children to be exposed to traditional tales. In New Zealand, books of Māori myths and legends by Peter Gossage or Gavin Bishop are strong contenders for any bookshelf, Xoë Hall is creating stunning editions of myths and legends in English and te reo Māori, and Annie Rae Te Ake Ake has retold 15 tales all impressively illustrated by young Kiwi artists. Look for volumes further afield too. I learnt about people different to me through the tales in Once Long Ago and I would like to think this created a strong foundation for fairness, acceptance and tolerance. I encourage you to find a modern collection of traditional tales from around the world; one filled with gorgeous illustrations and magical stories, preferably one where the stories are written and illustrated by people who grew up with them. Since this is such a personal choice I can’t recommend what volume you buy, but I can say that if your children read it until it is faded and frayed then it is a book well-loved and one they will carry with them forever.