Marius Barbeau,
The Golden Phoenix
(Oxford University Press, 1958;
Scholastic, 1973)

When I was very young, it was Dr. Seuss. A little older, and it was Edith Hamilton's Mythology. But somewhere in between, my interest in folklore and fairytales was sated by a slim collection of stories that, despite their French-Canadian origins, took me to wonderful, faraway lands ruled by kings and sultans.

As author Marius Barbeau explains in his afterword, the stories have their origins in many far corners of the world, brought to the lower St. Lawrence River basin by settlers from France. As a child (who didn't bother to read afterwords, after all) I never would have guessed this book came from Canada -- and, given the diverse collection of stories within, few people would be likely to make that connection.

The patterns of these tales are familiar ones, although the specifics of each plot were completely fresh to a child exposed to the Disneyfied versions of similar stories. In "The Golden Phoenix," for instance, a king is plagued by a problem and sets his three sons to the task of solving it. The first two sons fail, of course, but the plucky youngest, Petit Jean, succeeds in tracking the problem to a neighboring kingdom, ruled by a powerful and sinister sultan. Of course, the sultan has riches beyond imagining and a beautiful, sympathetic daughter....

Another king, again with three sons, dies and leaves them with his last three items of value in "The Princess of Tomboso." The youngest, Jacques, foolishly squanders his prize and, in an effort to regain it, his brothers' prizes as well. A chance encounter with a magical orchard changes his fortune and gives him the means to avenge his losses on the spiteful princess. "The Fairy Quite Contrary" reminds us that an evil spirit should always be invited to christenings lest misfortune follow.

A two-part tale begins with "Scurvyhead," in which a poor man's son, Petit Jean, flees his life to seek his fortune and finds it -- and a magical horse, besides -- in the lair of an evil witch. His tale continues in "Sir Goldenhair," in which his lowly station is elevated through bravery, magic and, again, the good will of the horse. Three king's sons again are set to a quest in "The Fountain of Youth," and again, the youngest is the only one who can muddle through -- but his brothers aren't so eager to see him succeed.

After six lively fairytales, the book concludes with "Jacques the Woodcutter," a fabliau or ancient comic narrative, in which a peasant outwits his faithless wife and an arrogant prince with the help of a wandering peddler, and "The Sly Thief of Valenciennes," an episodic story in which an outlaw continually outwits a rich king and all his counselors.

I was delighted to learn that, even after decades packed among so many old books from my childhood, Barbeau still has the craft to transport me to those faraway places. The stories hold true for audiences young or old, and this often-overlooked collection of tales deserves to be added to more childhood reading lists.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 27 March 2004

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