decorated initial 'I'n ‘Revising the fairy tale: Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies’, Siobahm Lam argues that Kingsley ‘revised’ the genre and illustrates this from a passage in a letter to F. D. Maurice in which he states his proselytizing aims: ‘to make children and grown folks understand that there is a quite miraculous and divine element underlying all physical nature’. Taking as his basis the worst-case scenario, he protests that ‘nobody knows anything about anything, in the sense in which they may know God in Christ, and right and wrong’. His ultimate goal supports religious belief, as one might expect from a Broad-Church Anglican priest disseminating his beliefs. He concedes, however, that he may have wrapped his ‘parable’ up in seeming Tomfooleries, but has done so ‘to get his pill swallowed by a generation who are not believing with anything like their whole heart in the living God’.

Lam suggests that The Water Babies is ‘a new kind of moral tale’ wrapped in ‘seeming Tomfooleries’. I would like to argue that we can go further and examine how, in a much shorter work that has been overshadowed, if not eclipsed by The Water Babies, Kingsley goes beyond revision. In his short story, ‘The True Fairy Tale’, incorporated in his later work, Madam How and Lady Why, he continues to proselytize but proposes not a revision but a radical transformation tantamount to a wholesale rejection of a well-established and popular genre.

Kingsley published The Water Babies in 1863 and subtitled it ‘A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby’. First, I consider how it qualifies to some extent as a conventional fairy story despite the reservations and ambivalences with which Kingsley treats his audience. Secondly, I examine how in Madam How and Lady Why, published in 1869, Kingsley rejected the traditional tale and produced a supposedly ‘true’ but highly unorthodox fairy tale which combines bio-geology and the authentic wonders of a numinous universe to which the natural sciences give the student and the worshipper access. Commentators on the fairy tale, even someone as authoritative as Jack Zipes, have paid insufficient attention to this attempt to transform the genre radically.

I. The Water Babies as an Unconventional Fairy Tale

Kingsley’s The Water Babies has obvious similarities with other well-known tales — Perrault’s ‘Cinderella’, for instance — and these are worth rehearsing before I examine the textual ambivalences in which Kingsley anticipates his rejection of the conventional fairy tale. He begins in time-honoured fashion with ‘Once upon a time’, a topos with which he will later spring a surprise in ‘The True Fairy Tale’ (p. 41: see below). He follows his opening with a conventional narrational copula of ‘rags to riches’, and introduces Tom, a grimy little chimney-sweep with sore knees and raw elbows. After his aquatic journey, Tom ends up as ‘a great man of science’. Similarly, Cinderella begins as a skivvy who washes the dishes, scrubs the stairs, cleans out her mistress’ bedroom, and sleeps on a dirty mattress in the attic right at the top of the house (p. 130). But, through the miraculous intervention of her Fairy Godmother and her extraordinary beauty, Cinderella marries a Prince and, as a sign of her sweet disposition, dispenses her royal patronage to her former tormentors (p. 139).

One of Warwick Goble's illustrations for The Water Babies. [Click on the image for more information.]

Lam has pointed to the way in which Kingsley has ‘wrapped up’ his parable-like ‘Fairy Tale for A Land Baby’ in ‘seeming Tomfooleries’. However, he weakens his own arguments because the Tomfooleries in which they are ‘wrapped’ are not as flippant as his description suggests. In them he anticipates his rejection of the magic and superstition of the fairy tales in favour of the ‘quite miraculous and divine element underlying all physical nature’. And to highlight their importance in the text, Kingsley features an element not to be found in traditional fairy tales. Whereas other fairy tale narrators exploit their audience’s credulousness with their fantastical creatures and magical events, Kingsley avoids a too-easy credulousness by introducing Professor Ptthmllnsprts, an inductive scientist who dismisses imaginary creatures, such as ‘nymphs, satyrs, fauns, inui, dwarfs, trolls, elves, gnomes, fairies’ as ‘pure bosh and wind’ on the grounds that ‘no man was forced to believe anything to be true, but what he could see, hear, taste, or handle’ (pp. 81-2). The Professor demands factual evidence on which, according to Kingsley, inductive scientists like Paracelsus (1493/4-1541) based their work — that is, the Baconian belief ‘that all pure science was a revelation from God: 'the voice of God revealed in facts' and experienced by human beings as that which they can 'see, hear, taste, or handle’ (‘Madame How,’ p.77). These natural ‘facts’ displayed in a numinous universe lead to his argument at the end of the tale that God has revealed in the natural world wonders that completely eclipse the fantastical creations of the human imagination found in fairy tales.

The facts found in the ‘most wonderful of all picture books’ are, however, accessible only to the trained observer, and in 1872 he articulated his view of the workings of the inductive scientist precisely and economically in his lecture ‘The Study of Natural History for Soldiers’ given at the Royal Artillery, Woolwich. In defining what he expects of the scientific mind, and also of the military, he arranges his thinking under eleven headings or ‘habits’:

1. Working steadily by rule, from the known to the unknown;
2. Seeing;
3. Knowing what we see;
4. Discerning differences and likenesses;
5. Classifying accordingly;
6. Searching for hypotheses which shall connect and explain those verified facts;
7. Verifying those hypotheses by applying them to fresh facts;
8. Throwing away the facts if they do not fit;
9. General patience, diligence, accuracy;
10. Reverence for facts for their own sake;
11. Reverent and implicit obedience to Natural Law. [2006, p. 16]

These requirements may seem of more importance to natural history than to literature, but the inductive formula of the visible, the audible, and the tangible inform his rejection of the conventional fairy story. For, in the informed world to which Andrews is introducing the boys, Divine Mystery that is beyond explanation by the inductive sciences will replace the superstition and magic of the conventional fairy tale, and the boys will learn to appreciate that mystery ‘by watching the common natural things’ around them. In this way they will learn to understand the meaning of God’s Fairy Land and how it is subject to Natural Law as the Faery World is not.

In her intervention Cinderella’s Godmother prepares her for the ball with a series of magical transformations. Tom is similarly transformed — in his case, from terrestrial to aquatic creature, and Kingsley peoples the aquatic world through which he travels with many fantastical creatures like aquatic swallows, monkeys, and squirrels, and talking animals and fish. But such magical elements contravene the Natural Law and they are not credible in the real world. The fairy-lands which human beings create demand from the readers a credulousness which can ignore such blatant transgressions of the Natural Law in a willing suspension of disbelief.

As we have seen, unlike other fairy tale narrators, Kingsley guards against credulousness in the reader by employing Professor Ptthmllnsprts, who has a perfectly rational reason for denying the existence of the fantastical creatures which people fairy land: nymphs, satyrs, fauns, inui, dwarfs, trolls, elves, gnomes, fairies brownies, goblins and many more (p. 82) as ‘pure bosh and wind’: he operates on the very best principles of the inductive scientists, i.e. that ‘no man should be forced to believe anything to be true, but what he could see, hear, taste or handle’ (p.81).

Yet Kingsley also endows this extreme exponent of inductive science with many faults. He is selfish, vain-glorious and takes matters to an extreme. What is more, he himself argues for the existence of fairies. He does so light-heartedly, but in a joke surely beyond the comprehension of his younger readers. In an adroit little piece of chop logic, he claims that the story of the Mayor of Plymouth ‘has two advantages: it is ‘quite true’ and ‘it has no moral (as folks say all good stories ought to have)’. Just as the tale of the mayor has no moral, so The Water Babies has no moral ‘because it is a fairy tale, you know’ (p. 99). This jokingly contradicts the evidence. Every one of Perrault’s Tales ends with a moral and Kingsley ends The Water Babies with a moral. But, to further such ‘Tomfoolery’, he produces an imperfect syllogism: 1. There must be fairies. 2. This is a fairy tale. 3. Therefore you cannot have a fairy tale without fairies (p. 34). Maybe the syllogism should read: 1. There are fairies in fairy tales. 2. This tale has fairies in it. 3. Therefore this must be a fairy tale. Whatever, the implication is clear: the appearance of fairies in a fiction does not prove that they exist, and he recognises this in his amusingly contradictory statement to his audience: ‘But remember always, as I told you at first, that this is all a fairy tale, and only fun and pretence: and, therefore, you are not to believe a word of it, even if it is true’ (p. 181). With such convoluted and contradictory statements, Kingsley may run the risk of confusing his young audience. On the one hand Ptthmllnsprts’ argument has left no room for credulousness; on the other, Kingsley moves towards exposing the ‘magic’ on which the fairy tale depends.

Kingsley further eschews the ambivalence and the chop logic when he allows us to hear from a young voice: ‘Tom thought he would sooner have a jolly good fairy tale, about Jack the Giant-killer or Beauty and the Beast, which taught him something that he didn't know already’ (p.106, my emphasis). The ambivalence has gone. Giants and Beasts may be fanciful creations, but Instruction (‘taught’) and Enjoyment (‘jolly good’) go hand in hand in fairy tales, and this is consistent with the argument of ‘The True Fairy Tale’.

II. The context of the 'The True Fairy Tale': Madam How and Lady Why

Front cover of the Internet Archive copy of Madam How and Lady Why (London: 3rd ed. Strahan, 1873).

The title of 'The True Fairy Tale' suggests that it is going to be the real McCoy of which all other tales are imitations, or that Kingsley has discovered the Ur-fairy tale from which all others have descended. Neither turns out to be the case. The tale belongs to his work in popularizing science for the younger generation, and forms Chapter VI of Madam How and Lady Why, dedicated to ‘my son Grenville Arthur, and to his school-fellows at Winton House’. The context is important. Kingsley's scientific and religious proselytizing here explain why, in his ‘true’ fairy tale, he transforms a lesson in bio-geology firstly into a religious tract on how, informed by their study of Natural History, young people should respond to the wonders of the world around them, and secondly into a highly plausible account of the origins of fairy tales which centres them firmly in bio-geological history and ancestral memories, and demystifies them.

i. The Preface to Madam How and Lady Why

Kingsley’s religious and scientific proselytizing also explains why a scientific understanding of the world’s immanence, and the moral behaviour inspired by such an understanding, dominates this ‘fairy tale’. Consequently, Kingsley begins the Preface to Madam How and Lady Why not unsurprisingly with a key element in most education, book learning. He tells his son and his friends that when he was a child there were no such children’s books as they have. Today’s books combine all the necessary qualities. They are ‘without number, clear, amusing, and pretty, as well as really instructive’ (p. 5). Significantly, they offer young people information on subjects which only ‘a few learned men’ used to talk about. Kingsley cannot resist the comment that learned as they may have been, those ‘few’ understood little of what they were reading (p. 5).

He has strong views on book learning, and in the Preface makes special demands consistent with the principles set out in his lectures on ‘Town Geology’ (1872) and ‘How to Study Natural History’ (1846). If ‘mere reading of books would make wise men’, he tells his son and his friends, then they should grow up much wiser than us old fellows’. But books are not intrinsically wise. The boys must make them wise by using for themselves the trio of attributes which feature so strongly in Kingsley’s thinking: ‘your eyes, and ears, and common sense’ (p. 5). To illustrate what he means, Kingsley relates a short story, ‘Eyes and No Eyes’, from a popular late eighteenth century magazine ‘Evenings at Home, or The Juvenile Budget Opened’ (1792–1796), edited by John Aikin (1747-1822) and his sister Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825). Kingsley’s choice of the story may have something to do with the interests he and the editors had in common. Anna was a dissenter devoted to the education of the young and produced four volumes of ‘Lessons for Children’. She also wrote children’s literature. John wrote an essay on ‘The Application of Natural History to Poetry’. Whether or not there is a connection, Kingsley clearly chose ‘Eyes and No Eyes’ to illustrate an activity which he values as pivotal to the successful learning of Natural History. A brief summary of the ‘regular old-fashioned, prim, sententious story’ story which Kingsley presents to the boys will clarify the reasons for the choice.

After a school holiday, a schoolteacher, Mr. Andrews (obviously a stand-in for the author), asks two boys who have spent the afternoon walking about their experiences. Robert has been to Broom Heath, and round by Camp Mount, and home through the meadows. ‘But it has been very dull. He has hardly seen a single person. He would have much rather have gone by the turnpike-road’. The second boy, William, enters ‘terribly dirty and wet’. However, he has never had such a pleasant walk in his life and has stuffed his handkerchief with the ‘curiosities’ he has collected. These include a piece of mistletoe and he wants to know what it is. He has also seen a woodpecker and a wheat-ear, has gathered some strange flowers, and chased a peewit because it looked as if its wing was broken. William’s selfless gesture towards the peewit, however, has resulted him in falling into a bog and getting thoroughly soaked. But he is not bothered about that because an old man whom he has met by chance has given him a lesson in turf-cutting and has given him a dead adder.

His voyage of discovery reaches its climax when he sees a ‘grand prospect’ from the top of a hill which he has climbed, and wants to make a return visit using Cary's old county maps to make out the geography of the shire. Then, because the hill was called Camp Mount, he has gone looking for a Roman camp, and found one; then down to the river to see ‘twenty things more; and so on, and so on’. He has brought home ‘curiosities enough, and thoughts enough, to last him a week’ (p. 5, my emphasis). William has done precisely what Kingsley wants young men to do. In his lecture, ‘How to Study Natural History’, he recommends ‘An hour’s summer walk’ which will ‘furnish (you) with subjects for a month’s investigation in the form of plants, shells, and animalcules, on each of which a whole volume might be written’ (my emphasis, p. 21). Andrews, who is of course delighted, contrasts the two boys:

So it is. One man walks through the world with his eyes open, another with his eyes shut; and upon this difference depends all the superiority of knowledge which one man acquires over another. I have known sailors who had been in all the quarters of the world and could tell you nothing but the signs of the tippling-houses, and the price and quality of the liquor. On the other hand, Franklin could not cross the Channel without making observations useful to mankind. While many a vacant thoughtless youth is whirled through Europe without gaining a single idea worth crossing the street for, the observing eye and inquiring mind find matter of improvement and delight in every ramble. You, then, William, continue to use your eyes. And you, Robert, learn that eyes were given to you to use. [pp. 5-6]

Kingsley finishes the story and asks the boys to think carefully about the tale and the ‘observing eye’ and the ‘inquiring mind’ which a budding natural scientist needs to develop. He gives his son and his friends a choice: they must settle in their own minds ‘whether they will be eyes or no eyes’. Will they look and see for themselves what happens, or will they let other people look for them? If they choose the latter course, they risk being conned or worse, in the situation of ‘the blind leading the blind, till both fall into the ditch’ (p.6).

Kingsley devotes the remainder of the Preface to a mini-sermon on the obligations of the boys to use wisely the eyes and common sense which God has given them. A superior consideration and authority, the question of doing right or wrong, governs whether the boys will be clever and wise, and whether they use their eyes or not. With their God-given eyes they have a duty to read the one book worth reading: ‘the most beautiful and most wonderful of all picture-books, which is simply all things which you can see, hear, and touch, from the sun and stars above your head to the mosses and insects at your feet.’ Encountering Natural Truth will rescue them from ‘the tyranny of darkness, and distrust, and fear’ so that they can enter into ‘God's free kingdom of light, and faith, and love’, as ‘wonder, the mother of true science’, leads them to salvation. Kingsley claims that the tyranny from which they will be rescued is more poisonous than the Javanese tree, Antiaris toxicaria. Neither God nor His Son have planted it, and it drops its venom into the most tender of hearts creating moral anarchy and cruelty. But the remedy is to hand. He ends his preface with solemn advice to his young audience: ‘any little child, who will use the faculties God has given him, may find an antidote to all its poison in the meanest herb beneath his feet’ (p.6).

ii. The twelve tales of Madam How and Lady Why

With the Preface concluded, Kingsley presents a series of twelve tales told to the boys by his persona, Mr. Andrews. His choice of narrator is a radical departure from a Mother Goose narrator (Warner, pp. 45-46), and the subject matter includes not Sleeping Beauties or Jacks and their beanstalks, but volcanoes, chalk-carts, the chemical composition of chalk, and the evolution of coral reefs. Incongruously in this context, the sixth tale is called ‘The True Fairy Tale’ which Kingsley opens, not with the conventional ‘Once upon a time’ but mid-way through a lesson in bio-geology. As Kingsley recognises in an address given to Scientific Society of Winchester, Bio-geology is ‘an infant science’ which he defines as ‘the science which treats of the distribution of fauna and flora over the globe, and the causes of that distribution’ (1874, p. 79), a definition crucial to Andrews’ teaching.

Andrews tells the class: ‘You asked if there were men in England when the country was covered with ice and snow. Look at this, and judge for yourself’. He shows them a piece of flint and some bones, and, and, like a semiotician, reads what they signify. The piece of flint is narrow, thin and sharp-edged. It is not like ‘the hundreds of thousands of broken bits of gravel which we tread on here all day long’. Andrews has offered the boys his first observation to be followed by a second: ‘here are some more bits like it, which came from the same place’. They have obviously been split off a larger flint and (telling point) they are ‘all very much the same shape’. They look like rough knives or razor blades. He reads for the boys what this signifies. From their shape human beings, not natural forces, have split off the flakes. And there are more pieces ‘pear-shaped, but flattened, sharp at one end and left rounded at the other’. Andrews reads these as weapons because they look like spear-heads, or arrow-heads, or pointed axes, or pointed hatchets (p.40).

In an early anticipation of Saussure, Kingsley has extended the scope of Andrews’ bio-geology lesson to include semiotics, and during this lesson in ‘bio-geological semiotics’ Andrews reads what the flint pieces signify. They are like the weapons which men used before the Iron Age. If you crack a fresh flint, its surface is grey, and it will stick to your tongue. However, these specimens are smooth and shiny ‘and the edges of some of them are a little rubbed from being washed about in gravel’ and the iron in the gravel has ‘stained them red’. He has identified signs of a process which would need thousands of years to complete. He calls their attention to further signs: ‘little rough markings, too, upon some of them, which, if you look at through a magnifying glass, are iron, crystallised into the shape of little seaweeds and trees-another sign that they are very very old’.

Andrews, who continues to read the relics, mixes in a little geography as he adduces for the boys what you can learn about the people who carried them from these flint remains. First, he observes that the flint flakes have come from another place, since for hundreds of miles from here no flints can be found. He therefore deduces that men must have brought them here ages ago and asks the boys a question. ‘Did these people actually live here at a time when we know it was icy?’ He turns to the bones and demonstrates how the boys can read them to seek an answer. Careful examination reveals that they have been split lengthways which suggests that the people were sucking the marrow out of the bones. This raises a question about what sort of animals they were eating. In answering this, he offers his pupils an important lesson in effective learning. He acknowledges modestly that he has learned this from others for he could not have answered the question ‘if wiser men than I am could not have told me’. The answer is ‘reindeer’ but the boys already know about reindeers, so he has no need to say anything about them.

The flints and the bones have yielded up all their secrets but one - their origin. Andrews informs his pupils that they have come from a cave in the Dordogne in southwestern France where ‘it is hotter every summer than it was here even this summer’ (my emphasis). Andrews stresses the summery climate to make the point to his pupils that the presence of these remains in a cave in the Dordogne is clear evidence that ‘in that warm land once lived savages, who hunted amid ice and snow the reindeer, and with the reindeer animals stranger still’ (p. 40).

He now presents, in the manner of a good pedagogue, a summation of the significance of what the boys have been learning, and he does so in an unexpected manner. If readers have been wondering whatever happened to ‘The True Fairy Tale’ the title promised, they now discover that they have been listening to a sustained preface to the tale itself, for, as Andrews tells the boys: ‘And now I will tell you a fairy tale: to make you understand it at all I must put it in the shape of a tale’. Instruction is a traditional function of the fairy tale, but he claims that what follows is not just any fairy tale but ‘the fairy tale of all fairy tales’. In it he will reflect on the origins of the genre, and by the end the boys will understand why people used to believe in ‘fairies, and trolls, and elves, and scratlings, and all strange little people who were said to haunt the mountains and the caves’ (p. 43).

III. 'The True Fairy Tale' and the subversion of the genre

Now comes the time-honoured ‘once upon a time’, but the opening proves disingenuous as Andrews slips seamlessly from fairy tale time to geological time. He takes his pupils back to a time when a single land mass joined Ireland, England and Norway. He conducts this part of the lesson in Huttonian fashion for as Charles Gillispie points out, ‘with geologists like Hutton, you can describe past events only by an inductive analogy with what you can see in the present and by the evidence of resulting formations’ (my emphasis. 1969 p. 47). Consequently, Andrews presents a mixture of historical conjecture based on the observable present. The country must have looked like present-day moors. They know that there were forests of Scotch fir, and spruce, oaks, alders, and yews, as well as sloes and water plants (Menyanthes trifoliata) which are still common in British and northern European bogs. And the boys do not have to imagine the flora. They can see them in the contemporary landscape. The locality provides evidence of species because they can see surviving species in the locality: the buck-bean in Larmer's and Heath pond and the water-lilies, and varieties of pond-weed which still live in today’s ponds (p. 41).

When Andrews talks about the fauna, referring to ‘wild horses, wild deer, and wild oxen, those last of an enormous size’, he can offer the boys no evidence from surviving species. He can with other species, and again takes as evidence what you can observe in the present day: thousands of roe-deer in contemporary Scotland, and beavers in South Wales and south-eastern France (p. 41). Like a Natural Philosopher, he supports his case with multiple examples. After cataloguing wild horses, wild deer, wild oxen roe-deer, beavers, little water-rats, monkeys, great herds of elephants and rhinoceroses, wild wolves, great hippopotamuses, hyaenas and leopards, he mentions the ‘honest’ little water-rats’ and, assuming continuity, he suggests that they too ‘sat up on their hind legs like monkeys, nibbling the water-lily pods, thousands of years ago, as they do in our ponds now’ (p. 42).

This ‘prologue’ has created a secure base for the first ‘chapter’ of his ‘fairy tale’, devoted to the Ice Age. He guides his pupils through this in the simplest of manners. The climate grew colder, and the land sank leaving only the tops of the mountains in the British Isles. To support this he uses as his evidence an essential element in geological dating, i.e. scientists finding Arctic shells several thousands of feet high on the mountain sides created in the British Isles during the Ice Age.

The second chapter introduces the boys to ‘the worst, perhaps, of all the age of Ice’, as the icebergs either exterminated or drove away the animals, but we have the evidence to hand which allows them to verify past history by observing what has endured into the present: ‘a few little hardy plants which clung about cracks and gullies in the mountain tops; and whose descendants live there still’ (p. 41).

Kingsley constructs Andrews’ third chapter on a proverb: ‘When things come to the worst, they commonly mend’ (p.41). In the mix of religious belief and bio-geology which constitutes the tale, religious belief now becomes dominant. His choice of the proverb is consistent with the resilience and resurgence which are a key part of Kingsley’s optimism for a Divinely ordained renewal of contemporary Britain from the destruction wrought by industrialisation that he set forth in an essay The Nineteenth Century of 14 November 1854:

I can conceive a time when, by improved chemical science, every foul vapour which now escapes from the chimney of a manufactory, polluting the air, destroying the vegetation, shall be seized, utilised, converted into some profitable substance, till the black country shall be black no longer, the streams once more crystal clear, the trees once more luxuriant, and the desert, which man has created in his haste and greed, shall in literal fact once more blossom as the rose. And just so can I conceive a time when by a higher civilisation, formed on a political economy more truly scientific, because more truly according to the will of God, our human refuse shall be utilised like our material refuse; when man as man, down to the weakest and most ignorant, shall be found (as he really is) so valuable that it will be worthwhile to preserve his health, to develop his capabilities, to save him alive, body, intellect, and character, at any cost; because men will see that a man is, after all, the most precious and useful thing on the earth, and that no cost spent on the development of human beings can possibly be thrown away.

Kingsley’s account of the ending of the Ice Age mirrors his vision of a resurgent England. ‘This poor frozen and drowned land of England and France and Germany mended very slowly...the land rose, and grew warmer’. As it rose, the wild beasts ‘came gradually back again’, ‘the old icy sea turned into dry land’ and the fauna and flora returned. Once more there were ‘grasses’, ‘weeds’, and ‘shrubs’, ‘elephants’, ‘rhinoceroses’, ‘hippopotamuses’, ‘oxen’, ‘enormous bears’, ‘hyaenas’, and a tiger or lion ‘as large as the largest Bengal tiger now to be seen in India’. There were other ‘strange’ animals, especially the great Irish elk. He evidences the existence of the great elk by quoting surviving remains. It was ‘as large as the largest horse, with horns sometimes ten feet across’, and the boys ‘can judge what a noble animal he must have been’ because they have seen for themselves an example of the animal’s skull and horns (p.42).

This vision of a restored world has set the scene for the entrance of ‘the most precious and useful thing on the earth’ (see above). Andrews is beginning to demystify the fairy tale as he conjectures on a possible migration from southern and eastern France and onwards to England, Scotland and Ireland. He has apparently no need to conjecture what early human beings looked like. He is confident that they were hairless, had no defensive scales, had no horns, tusks, or teeth, but had a decided advantage over stronger animals - ‘they were Men, with reasonable souls’. But for the moment he has reached the limit of his knowledge. We do not know ‘whence’ they came. In an age of Darwinism, this surprisingly has nothing to do with the evolution of species. Kingsley avoids that issue, restricting Andrews to their place of geographical origin and the reasons for their migration. And he puts speculation firmly in its place. They may have been after food, suffering from wanderlust, in fear of stronger and cleverer people than themselves, or just wanting to be alone! But whatever their motives, they came.

He praises ‘these savage men, and so brave’. Without iron, and equipped only with ‘flint and sharpened bones’, they managed to kill and eat mammoths, giant oxen, wild horses, and reindeer, and fend off hyaenas, tigers, and bears, ‘simply because they had wits, and the dumb animals had none’.

Intriguingly, the schoolboy audience now discovers that what they have been listening to is ‘the strangest part to me of all my fairy tale’. In a direct challenge to the fairy story, Andrews describes his tale as ‘strange’ because it describes ‘a wonder and a prodigy and a miracle, stranger than all the most fantastic marvels you ever read in fairy tales’ (p. 42). If the matter rested there, you might conclude that God’s or Nature’s ‘fair works’ are inherently superior to anything you might encounter in a human fantasy. But Andrews is focussing on the quality which distinguishes human beings from animals – the wit which facilitates invention and improvement: ‘Since apes do not possess wit, they cannot better themselves and pass their stupidity on down the generations’. In contrast, ‘human beings can go on civilising themselves, and growing richer and more, wiser and happier, year by year’. For Andrews, human inventiveness is the ‘wonder and a prodigy comfortable and a miracle, stranger than all the most fantastic marvels you ever read in fairy tales’. He has unambiguously claimed for God’s fairy tale a monopoly on miracles and wonderment (p. 42).

He has also made a claim concerning human progress which he must support, and he does so with more bio-geological evidence. He offers the boys an example of how to deduce from the evidence available. You may find the flint weapons in gravel-pits in France and southern England and the bones of animals which the ‘savages’ ate. But, while, as a measure of human progress, you can also find burnt ashes and round stones which early human beings used to heat water, not all human beings have progressed from such rudimentary methods. ‘Savages’ still heat water in the manner which he has described and used as evidence that what was, once, has left its footprints in the here and now. He not only demonstrates modern progress. He also recognises the unevenness of human development, which turns out to be a crucial element in the evolution of the fairy tale.

i. An explanation for fairy tales

When Kingsley starts to digresses on stalagmites, he has to remind himself that ‘We must keep now to our fairy tale’. He does not, however, immediately keep to it — but not because he is simply wandering off the track. He is preparing his pupils to appreciate why, in constituting ‘the fairy land of God’ (p. 45), the marvels of evolution not only far surpass any fantasy but can be regarded as aetiological, as some of Grimms’ tales are (Blamires, p. 35). His pupils are to learn about the circumstances which explain why people once believed in fairies and ogres and some still do. Andrews offers a very plausible account.

Illustration of primitive man drawing, p.147 of the Internet Archive copy of Madam How and Lady Why (3rd ed. London: Strahan, 1873).

He begins with Man the Cave-Dweller and the cave drawings which survive. He concludes that one of the earliest of human ‘fancies’ was to draw, an activity which his audience loves. However, they cannot explain their choice and neither can anyone else. It is ‘one of the mysteries of human nature’. He impresses on the boys how very special it is to be human, for even the poor savage’s drawings prove that ‘he had the same wonderful and mysterious human nature as you’. He takes the claim further, describing the ‘poor savage’ as ‘the kinsman of every painter and sculptor who ever felt it a delight and duty to copy the beautiful works of God’. The savage in fact ennobled himself by recognising, appreciating, and scratching on ivory in the cave the figures of the animals he hunted – one of the true objects of study for the Natural Scientist.

Andrews treats his young audience to more bio-geological history based on the Danish ‘kjokken-moddings’ (‘kitchen dung-hills’) and what evidence they have yielded. With that he articulates the question which must by now have been exercising young minds: ‘But what has all this to do with my fairy tale?’ His answer is a very simple logical suggestion which anticipates later thinking on the subject (BBC, 20th January, 2016). Stories of fairies, elves, and trolls, scratlings and cluricaunes are derived from ancient oral narratives about the ‘savages’ after their enforced migration northwards, a migration forced on them by the more highly evolved Irish, Scottish Highlanders, and Gauls. Flint axes and arrows were no match for more sophisticated bronze and iron weapons, and the invaders drove the weaker peoples away. During this period, fairy tales originated, as an oral tradition. With the native peoples driven out, stories of how they dwelt in caves, had strange customs, and used poisoned weapons proliferated, and people entertained each other with them around the camp fire at night. Over time these multiplied and evolved from adult entertainment into stories to amuse children. In the process, obvious distortions happened to the original material. Lapps and Eskimos, for instance, were very small and that lent itself to stories of their growing so small as to be invisible. He makes an exception for ogres for whose existence he presents evidence from a cave in the Neanderthal, between Elberfeld and Dusseldorf, on the Lower Rhine: ‘The skull and bones which were found there (and which are very famous now among scientific men) belonged to a personage whom I should have been very sorry to meet, and still more to let you meet, in the wild forest.... a savage of enormous strength of limb (and I suppose of jaw) likewise’. Here his certainty is giving way to conjecture (‘suppose’). He would have eaten you if he could. His conjectures continue as he suggests that there is evidence from old ballads and romances (unspecified) that the savages may well have existed for a long time until finally exterminated by warriors wearing the full panoply of iron war gear (p. 43).

Illustration of a cave with stalagmites on p.147 of the Internet Archive copy of Madam How and Lady Why (3rd. ed. London: Strahan, 1873).

One very important question remains: ‘But had these people any religion?’ Andrews is asking his young class to inquire into and understand the Universe, and ‘self-improvement through reason and scientific knowledge now becomes a means to faith’ (Lam). Where the ‘savages’ are concerned, Andrews has a Christian generosity of spirit. In that ‘God beholds all the heathen, fashions the hearts of them, and understandeth all their works, he is just and good. These poor folks were, I doubt not, happy enough in their way’. In a line of reasoning characteristic of Kingsley, Andrews argues that ‘we are bound to believe (for we have no proof against it), that most of them were honest and harmless’. Their disadvantage, he tells the boys, is that ‘none of them knew things which you know; but for that very reason they were not bound to do many things which you are bound to do. For those to whom little is given, of them shall little be required’ (p. 44). This is as close as Kingsley comes to a traditional moral.

Whereas he is apparently confident that pre-historic people were honest and harmless, Andrews has nothing to say about whether they had a religion or not. Faced with this, he does not conjecture but turns to what for him is a certainty: ‘known unto God are all His works from the creation of the world; and His mercy is over all His works, and He hateth nothing that He has made’. In fact, he has rendered his own question irrelevant because pre-historic people (the ‘savages’) were God’s creation, and ‘whether or not they knew God, God knew them’. For once, religious belief provides answers which science cannot.

ii. The moral of this 'new' fairy tale

According to Andrews this is the conclusion of his fairy tale. And you might identify some sort of simplistic moral lesson, viz. that primitive ignorant people do not have the same moral obligations which well brought up young Christian men have. But Kingsley has not concluded his tale. He has worked towards a peroration in which he triumphantly praises God’s works in a manner reminiscent of this passage from his 1846 lecture on ‘The Study of Natural History’:

Oh Lord, thy works are manifold; thy ways are very deep. In wisdom hast thou made them all, the earth is full of thy riches. Thou openest thy hand, and fillest all things living with plenteousness; they continue this day according to thine ordinance, for all things serve thee. Thou hast made them fast for ever and ever; thou hast given them a law which shall not be broken. Let them praise the name of the Lord; for he spake the word and they were made, he commanded, and they were created. [pp.22-23]

Andrews emphasises God’s work, not man’s, for the bio-geology lesson is ‘more wonderful, if you will think over it, than any story invented by man’. The logic is inexorable. Human Beings construct ‘pretty’ Fiction from the Fact. God makes the Facts. The Facts are the Truth. God makes the Truth. The Truth is much larger than the Fiction. God is greater than human beings. ‘The whole universe is larger than the little corner of it that any man, even the greatest poet or philosopher, can see’. And, in this argument, the Universe is not only grander and more beautiful than any one man can see. It is ‘much more strange’ than anything human beings can imagine.

In arguing that human beings construct their fictions from the visible, the audible, and the tangible, Andrews is working to the same formula as Professor Ptthmllnsprts who maintains that ‘no man was forced to believe anything to be true, but what he could see, hear, taste, or handle’, and hence his dismissal of such imaginary creatures as fairies as so much ‘bosh and wind’. But Andrews is a handy supplement to Ptthmllnsprts because he takes a rational Christian approach.

Christian rationality uses ‘strangeness’ to redefine the fairy tale. Kingsley tells the boys that they will never imagine ‘anything strange, unexpected, and curious’ unless, and for Kingsley this activity is a sine qua non of scientific activity, they use their eyes. Careful observation will reveal ‘a hundred things strange, more unexpected, more curious, actually ready-made already by God’. Not observing what is there is the mistake which Robert who ‘would have much rather have gone by the turnpike-road’ has made. This prepares the readers for Kingsley’s definition of the true fairy tale.

The boys have already learned that ‘Madam How's ways do not change nor her laws become broken’. He quotes Lyell as his authority for his statement: ‘Madam How is making and unmaking the surface of the earth now, by exactly the same means as she was making and unmaking ages and ages’. According to Lam’s ‘Charles Kingsley on ‘Madam How and Lady Why’: Reason and Faith in Children's Magazines’, Madam How and Lady Why ‘are revealed as fairies, but a strict social hierarchy exists in which Lady Why is the mistress of Madam How’, the former being a thin disguise for God and the latter Natural Law. According to Andrews, any youngsters who open their eyes to ‘the true fairy tale’ told by Madam How, i.e. the world around them, will find that this Tale of all Tales, the true ‘Marchen allen Marchen,’ will like all fairy tales evoke ‘imagination, wonder, awe, pity, and, hope and love’, but do so with such an intensity that they will see how worthless novels and story-books are and how much more rewarding it is to read Madam How’s ‘great green book’.

The farmer exemplifies this in his work. He is not scientific. He does not know the chemical causes of things. But he has been doing what Kingsley advocates. He has been reading Madam How's books with ‘very keen eyes’, experimenting and ‘watching, very carefully and rationally’. (Chapter 7: The Chalk-Carts, 46). The farmer has read Nature to purpose. The youngsters, as Christians, should read Nature and wonder. In ‘wonder’, God has blessed them with a faculty which unites science and religious belief because it is the mother of sound science and puts them onto the path to Salvation. But to achieve salvation through science, they must wonder at ‘the right thing’, the miracles which are the work of God, and not at the wrong things created by human beings: ‘pretty toys, gay fashions, fine clothes, tawdry luxuries, silly amusements’.

The boys are not yet adults, and Andrews gives them advance warning of the choice in store for them. They may go one evening to a play or a ball and wake up the following morning suffering the after effects. Hopefully they will wake up and wonder where worship and wonder are due. Or they might wake like a child after a pantomime during which they have stared at the ‘fairy halls’ which are really paint and canvas; ‘dazzling splendours’ which are the gas lighting; ‘magic transformations’ done with ropes and pulleys; ‘brilliant elves’ who are poor little children from a nearby stinking alley; and the harlequin and clown who, unknown to the audience, are behaving like Pagliacci, hiding behind their smiles worries about debt and hungry children at home. The youngster goes home duped into finding the pantomime ‘wondrously glorious’, ‘quite a fairy land’. But when he wakes up the following morning he sees ‘the pure light shining in through the delicate frost-lace on the window-pane’, ‘fields of virgin snow’, ‘the rosy dawn’, the ‘cloudless blue’, and 'the sun rising to the music of cawing rooks and piping stares’. Andrews has prepared the boys for what he neatly summarises in the closing sentences: ‘This is the true wonder. This is the true glory. The theatre last night was the fairy land of man; but this is the fairy land of God’ (p. 45). The conclusion makes a reader realise how skilfully Kingsley has negotiated his way from a lesson in geo-biology to the idea of the ‘fairy-land of God’. The traditional fairy tale narrator dismisses the immutability of natural laws in favour of magic as birds speak, people change shape, the dead don’t stay dead, a hazel tree dresses Perrault’s Cinderella in golden dress and shoes for the ball. But in Kingsley’s new-style fairy tale, the narrator employs the immutability of natural laws to assert his belief in God as the Divine Author of everything and to expose fairy tales as artefacts rooted in, and fancifully embroidering on, a real and God-given history. In the end, Kingsley’s ‘true’ fairy tale is not a fairy tale at all but a closely argued wholesale rejection of the genre.

Related Material


Aikin, John. An Essay on the Application of Natural History to Poetry. Warrington: J. Johnson, 1777.

Aikin, John and Barbauld, Anna Laetitia (née Aikin). Evenings At Home, or The Juvenile Budget Opened London. J. Johnson, 1792–96.

Aikin, John and Barbauld, Anna Laetitia (née Aikin). Miscellaneous pieces in Prose London: J. Johnson, 1792.

BBC News. Fairy tale origins thousands of years old, researchers say BBC News, 20 January 2016.

Blamires, David. Critical Quarterly: The Challenge of Fairy Tales to Literary Studies UK. Manchester University Press, Autumn 1979.

Gillispie, Charles. Genesis and Geology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Kingsley, Charles. His Letters and Memoirs of His Life: Volume 1. Edited by his wife.. London: Henry S. King & Co, 1877.

Kingsley, Charles. How To Study Natural History. Great Britain: Hard Press, Amazon, 2006.

Kingsley, Charles. Madam How and Lady How. 2006.

Kingsley, Charles. Scientific Essays and lectures Great Britain: Amazon for Hard Press, 2006.

Kingsley, Charles. Town Geology. London: Henry S. King & Co, 1872.

Kingsley, Charles. The Water Babies. Ed. Brian Alderson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Perrault. The Complete Fairy Tales Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Warner, Marina. Once Upon A Time Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Zipes, J. The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre. Oxfordshire, U.K: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Last modified 12 March 2019