The Complete Fairy Tales of Barbara Leonie Picard

Selected Fairy Tales

At the very start of a long, successful career (more than thirty books published, three times on the UK’s Carnegie Awards short list) as an author of children and young adult books, Barbara Leonie Picard wrote and then published fifty fairy tales.

By her account this began as a distraction in the early 1940’s while on duty as a night time fire watcher in England guarding building from incendiary bombs during the Blitz.

Beginning in 1949 she published all fifty stories in five collections. In 1994, in both the UK and US, Oxford University Press brought out Selected Fairy Tales, Picard’s own choice of sixteen of these tales. This is a trade paperback with cover art and a small drawing at the start of each story by Julia Cobbold. Generally as here Picard was fortunate in the illustrators of her tales.

I bought a very-good-condition used copy some years ago at the Strand here in Manhattan. It sat on my fairy/folk tale shelves for quite a while until I picked it up read the introduction and then the stories.

Picard’s prose is graceful and clear with the simplicity we expect of tales that have been polished over generations. The difference is that Picard’s stories use old models but are her own creations. “In an old mill, overlooking a village, lived a miller’s daughter with her father. Her hair was brown and her eyes were grey and she was fair enough to look upon; but her voice when she sang surpassed all other voices in the world. (the opening lines to the  Shepherd, the King and the Southwest Wind). Once I had read these sixteen stories I wanted to read them all. Eventually I did just that.

The Mermaid and the Simpleton   (Oxford University Press 1949, Criterion, US, 1970) was Picard’s first book of  Fairy Tales – was, in fact the first book she was to publish. The fifteen tales are well done; at thirty-two Picard’s style is fully formed. Philip Gough provides generous and appropriately strange illustrations.

As her initial book she’s sentimental about it. In her Selected Tales she includes four from The Mermaid and the Simpleton including “The Sea King’s Daughter”, the first tale she wrote. Each of her volumes for Oxford includes an oriental tale and a piece of chinoiserie. For Selected Tales she uses the ones from her first collection, the nicely done, “The Ivory Box” and “The Heart of the West Wind.” All the elements of Picard, the elegance of the prose, the complications of human and human/supernatural relationships are here. Each of these stories is fine and some much more than that. But her next collection proved stronger for me.

The Faun and the Woodcutter’s Daughter  came out from Oxford University Press in 1951 and was reprinted in the U.S. in 1964 by Critereon Books. The illustrator for this and her next book was Charles Stewart whom the reclusive Picard was to praise and thank. I believe he is the best illustrator with whom she worked.

The FATWD is my favorite of Picard’s collections and I think it was her’s too. Six of it’s fourteen stories are included in Selected Fairy Tales. There’s great variety here and the overall quality is very strong. The oriental tale and piece of chinoiserie -“Malati and the Prince” and “Tiger Lilly and Dragon” are a bit deeper and a bit more confidently done than their counterpants in TMATS. She has hit her stride. In this volume we have Picard’s rendering of standard themes – the good offspring and the bad offspring in ‘The Three Brothers and the Black Hen’, the quest for the lost object in ‘The Coral Comb’, the wise fool in ‘Clever Dick’.  But there is an extra twist in each tale, a bit of psychological insight along with the myth. We can’t be sure we know what will happen.

Then there is an underlying theme in the book of love achieved with difficulty and sometimes accompanied by loss. In the title story the magic creature and the human girl can not find acceptance in her world and must leave it. In ‘The Third Witch’ a young king is brought to to near ruin by his blind love for a witch. In ‘Count Alaric’s Lady,’ the count falls in love with a faery woman for whom his world is a kind of fleeting dream.

These are not stories of failure but of redemption – told within the style and tropes of the traditional fairy tale. The most remarkable of these is ‘Count Bertrand’ the story of a completely unlovable man, hated by all but one of the many who serve him. When confronted by Death who asks him to justify his existence he defies her, refuses to bend and finds salvation only when one servant, a young page, resolutely refuses not to love him.

The Lady of the Linden Tree (Oxford 1954, Criterion 1962) was the last of Picard’s fairy tale collections for Oxford University Press. It’s somewhat shorter than the prior two (twelve stories as opposed to fifteen and fourteen). TLOTLT won for Picard a place on the short list for the prestigious Carnegie Medal for Children’s literature – the UK equivalent of the US Newbery Award.

It’s a strong collection in no way unworthy of the honor, but I’ve found that literary awards, especially juried awards, are often given not just for the book in question but for the author’s work in general. And I take this to be a recognition of the entire Oxford series 

Only two of the stories made it into the Selected Tales, though those two “The Shepherd, the King and the Southwest Wind” and “The King’s Friend” are among her most remarkable tales. The first, as the author states in an introduction “Is a straightforward fairy tale,” of three wooers. It’s a charming thing made extraordinary by the Southwest Wind himself, a force of nature, petulant and self centered. “The King’s Friend” is a story of male friendship and trust, a recurring theme which Picard handles well.

The title story is of a noble and handsome knight and the hideously ugly woman for whom he performs deeds and finally marries in order to lift the curse under which she lives. In Picard stories the men are often simple, gallant and loving. It is the women in stories like this and “The Necklace” who have complexities, strange histories and sometimes secret, sometimes selfish motives.

“The Tale of the Two Cunning Servants” is an oriental tale at least as intricate as anything in the Arabian Nights. “Lady Melicent” plays interesting games with Time.

In the introduction (the only one she wrote for these collections until The Selected Fairy Tales forty years later) Picard seem to contradict a couple of things she afterwards says about the chronology and creation of these stories. She mentions each of the twelve, points out that they all have happy endings and thanks Charles Stewart for his illustrations.

Aside from his lackluster cover art these are indeed  fine, the Southwest Wind himself, the forest in “The King’s Friend” the dragon in “The Necklace” (shown above), the court scene in “Lady Melicent” and the arabesque for “The Tale of the Two Cunning Servants.” stand out for me.

In the 1950’s and ’60’s Picard published many Folk and Fairy Tale books  (“Hero Tales of the British Isles”, “Celtic Tales”, “Tales of Ancient Persia” etc) and young adult historical novels (“Odd John,” “One is One,” “The Young Pretenders” etc.) . She wrote no more fairy tales of her own. But Oxford had only published forty-one of her fifty stories.

In 1963 Harrap & Co in England and then Criterion in the US (1965) brought out a small collection of seven tales called The Goldfinch Garden. I like small books of fantasy – think it’s a perfect format and though short The Goldfinch Garden is quite strong. I’ve wondered how these stories remained uncollected for so long. A couple are noted as having appeared in anthologies over the years. Maybe the others had similar histories that had made them unavailable.

Three of the stories, “Bertrade and Dominic” a tale of young love thwarted by a family feud – with the girl as the stronger emotionally of the pair, “The Milkmaid and the Water Sprite” a nice variation on the story of a clever girl and a dissatisfied supernatural being and “Diccon and Elfrida” a tale of faithful love between mortal and fairy, are in Selected Fairy Tales.

In some ways this is the strongest of Picard’s collection. Several of the other stories are as good in their ways as the ones the author chose for her Selected Tales. “The Goldfinch Garden,” is the story of a lazy but lucky boy, a witch and a bewigged, impossible king who’s one of Picard’s happier creations. “Sir Hermit of the Forest,” is a tale of noble knight and thoughtless lady, “The Pavilion in the Laurels” has magic, a faithful boy and a strong girl. Even fairy tale and fantasy literature doesn’t provide many tales of vegetables proving themselves but the brief, “The Cabbage Without a Heart,” is just that.

The book is nicely produced. I found it a pleasure to read. Ann Linton’s front cover and much of her interior illustration is good though she makes the characters in “Diccon and Elfrida” and “Bertrade and Dominic too young and the boys seem not to be wearing any trousers or pants which is mildly creepy.

With The Goldfinch Garden, Picard had managed to get forty-eight of her tales into book form, not an easy achievement I can tell you from personal experience. The remaining two stories, “The Ploughboy and the Nixie” and “The Discontented Gargoyle” had to wait until 1968 for inclusion in the book Twice Seven Tales (Kaye & Ward Ltd/no US publication).

Twice Seven Tales is those two stories plus the twelve stories from The Lady of the Linden Tree. The introduction from TLOTLT is retained with a description of the last two stories added and her compliment to the illustrator Charles Stewart dropped.

The illustrator for TST was Victor Ambrus probably the best known of the artists associated with these books. He collaborated with Picard on various of her other works. His style is more realistic, less fantastical and more adult in many ways. It’s interesting to see the contrast between him and Stewart in their depictions of the Southwest Wind.

The two stories original to the collection are “The Ploughboy and the Nixie” (included in Selected Fairy Tales) a well wrought story of love between mortal and supernatural, between land dweller and water creature. Picard said of The Lady of the Linden Tree that all the stories had happy endings. This one does not. The other original story is “The Discontented Gargoyle about just that creature on a medieval cathedral. Picard has written of her love for Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales. I’d never really seen any trace of that in her writing. I did find an echo of it here.

There was no US publication or distribution of Twice Seven Tales. It remains the rarest of the Picard Fairy Tale books. I found it worth the trouble and expense (I think my copy with shipping from the UK was about $20) just to have all 50 stories – it had become something of an obsession for me. Selected Fairy Tales is available in paperback and in good used condition for a few dollars. The other four collections are available used in the US in the Criterion and related editions at low cost  – if you don’t mind library and discard markings on the otherwise blank inside covers which I don’t.

I have no idea what audience there is for this essay about the stories of Barbara Leonie Picard who is largely forgotten in her own country as well as this. If other thoughts occur to me I’ll add them here. Let me know if I have anything wrong or if there’s something you think should be added.

Rick Bowes
NYC 2011

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *