HE GROUP OF stories brought together in this volume differ from legends because they have, with one exception, no core of fact at the centre, from myths because they make no attempt to personify or explain the forces or processes of nature, from fairy stories because they do not often bring on to the stage actors of a different nature from ours. They give full play to the fancy as in "A Child's Dream of a Star," "The King of the Golden River," "Undine," and "The Snow Image"; but they are not poetic records of the facts of life, attempts to shape those facts "to meet the needs of the imagination, the cravings of the heart." In the Introduction to the book of Fairy Tales in this series, those familiar and much loved stories which have been repeated to children for unnumbered generations and will be repeated to the end of time, are described as "records of the free and joyful play of the imagination, opening doors through hard conditions to the spirit, which craves power, freedom, happiness; righting wrongs, and redressing injuries; defeating base designs; rewarding patience and virtue; crowning true love with happiness; placing the powers of darkness under the control of man and making their ministers his servants." The stories which make up this volume are closer to experience and come, for the most part, nearer to the every-day happenings of life.
A generation ago, when the noble activities of science and its inspiring discoveries were taking possession of the minds of men and revealing possibilities of power of which they had not dreamed, the prediction was freely made that poetry and fiction had had their day, and that henceforth men would be educated upon facts and get their inspirations from what are called real things. So engrossing and so marvellous were the results of investigation, the achievements of experiment, that it seemed to many as if the older literature of imagination and fancy had served its purpose as completely as alchemy, astrology, or chain armour.
The prophecies of those fruitful years of research did not tell half the story of the wonderful things that were to be; the uses of electricity which are within easy reach for the most homely and practical purposes are as mysterious and magical as the dreams of the magicians. We are served by invisible ministers who are more powerful than the genii and more nimble than Puck. There has been a girdle around the world for many years; but there is good reason to believe that the time will come when news will go round the globe on waves of air. If we were not accustomed to ordering breakfast miles away from the grocer and the poulterer, we should be overcome with amazement every time we took up the telephone transmitter. Absolutely pure tones are now being made by the use of dynamos and will soon be sent into homes lying miles distant from the power house, so to speak, so that very sweet music is being played by arc lights.
The anticipations of scientific men, so far as the uses of force are concerned, have been surpassed by the wonderful discoveries and applications of the past few years; but poetry and romance are not dead; on the contrary, they are more alive in the sense of awakening a wider interest than ever before in the history of writing. During the years which have been more fruitful in works of mechanical genius or dynamic energy, novels have been more widely distributed and more eagerly read than at any previous period. The poetry of the time, in the degree in which it has been fresh and vital, has been treated by newspapers as matter of universal interest.
Men are born story-readers; if their interest subsides for the moment, or is absorbed by other forms of expression, it reasserts itself in due time and demands the old enchantment that has woven its spell over every generation since men and women reached an early stage of development. Barbarians and even savages share with the most highly civilised peoples this passion for fiction.
Men cannot live on the bare, literal fact any more than they can live on bread alone; there is something in every man to feed besides his body. He has been told many times by men of great disinterestedness and ability that he must believe only that which he clearly knows and understands, and that he must concern himself with those matters only which he can thoroughly comprehend. He must live, in other words, by the rule of common sense; meaning by that oft-used phrase, clear sight and practical dealing with actual things and conditions. It would greatly simplify life if this course could be followed, but it would simplify it by rejecting those things which the finest spirits among men and women have loved most and believed in with joyful and fruitful devotion. If we could all become literal, matter of fact and entirely practical, we should take the best possible care of our bodies and let our souls starve. This, however, the soul absolutely refuses to do; when it is ignored it rebels and shivers the apparently solid order of common-sense living into fragments. It must have air to breathe, room to move in, a language to speak, work to do, and an open window through which it can look on the landscape and the sky. It is as idle to tell a man to live entirely in and by facts that can be known by the senses as to tell him to work in a field and not see the landscape of which the field is a part.
The love of the story is one of the expressions of the passion of the soul for a glimpse of an order of life amid the chaos of happenings; for a setting of life which symbolises the dignity of the actors in the play; for room in which to let men work out their instincts and risk their hearts in the great adventures of affection or action or exploration. Men and women find in stories the opportunities and experiences which circumstances have denied them; they insist on the dramatisation of life because they know that certain results inevitably follow certain actions, and certain deeply interesting conflicts and tragedies are bound up with certain temperaments and types of character.
The fact that many stories are unwholesome, untrue, vulgar or immoral impeaches the value and dignity of fiction as little as the abuse of power impeaches the necessity and nobility of government, or the excess of the glutton the healthfulness and necessity of food. The imagination must not only be counted as an entirely normal faculty, but the higher intelligence of the future will recognise its primacy among the faculties with which men are endowed. Fiction is not only here to stay, as the phrase runs, but it is one of the great and enduring forms of literature.
The question is not, therefore, whether or not children shall read stories; that question was answered when they were sent into the world in the human form and with the human constitution: the only open question is "what stories shall they read?" That many children read too many stories is beyond question; their excessive devotion to fiction wastes time and seriously impairs vigour of mind. In these respects they follow the current which carries a multitude of their elders to mental inefficiency and waste of power. That they read too many weak, untruthful, characterless stories is also beyond question; and in this respect also they are like their elders. They need food, but in no intelligent household do they select and provide it; they are given what they like if it is wholesome; if not, they are given something different and better. No sane mother allows her child to live on the food it likes if that food is unwholesome; but this is precisely what many mothers and fathers do in the matter of feeding the imagination. The body is scrupulously cared for and the mind is left to care for itself!
Children ought to have stories at hand precisely as they ought to have food, toys, games, playgrounds, because stories meet one of the normal needs of their natures. But these stories, like the food given to the body, ought to be intelligently selected, not only for their quality but for their adaptation. There are many good books which ought not to be in the hands of children because children have not had the experience which interprets them; they will either fail to understand, or if they understand, they will suffer a sudden forcing of growth in the knowledge of life which is always unwholesome.
Only stories which are sound in the views of life they present ought to be within the reach of children; these stories ought to be well constructed and well written; they ought to be largely objective stories; they ought not to be introspective, morbid or abnormal in any way. Goody-good and professionally "pious" stories, sentimental or unreal stories, ought to be rigorously excluded. A great deal of fiction specially written for children ought to be left severely alone; it is cheap, shallow and stamped with unreality from cover to cover. It is as unwise to feed the minds of children exclusively on books specially prepared for their particular age as to shape the talk at breakfast or dinner specially for their stage of development; few opportunities for education are more valuable for a child than hearing the talk of its elders about the topics of the time. There are many wholesome and entertaining stories in the vast mass of fiction addressed to younger readers; but this literature of a period ought never to exclude the literature of all periods.
The stories collected in this volume have been selected from many sources, because in the judgment of the editor, they are sound pieces of writing, wholesome in tone, varied in interest and style, and interesting. It is his hope that they will not only furnish good reading, but that they will suggest the kind of reading in this field that should be within the reach of children.
HAMILTON WRIGHT MABIE