Monday, April 26, 2021

The Lost Scottish Origin of a Fairy-Tale

The story is titled either "The Woodman and the Elves" or "The Woodman and the Goblins." It tells of a woodman who finds some overly large eggs in an unfamiliar part of his forest. He brings them home, and they hatch, giving forth six goblins or elves (the terms are used interchangeably). The woodman raises them by himself, but they are unruly, save for when he lights a lantern at night, and the sight of it transfixes them. I won't give away the ending here. 

But the story itself appears in a handful of anthologies, like Tim Kirk's Ghosts and Goblins (1982), and Wilhelmina Harper's 1936 anthology of the same name, where it is named "The Woodman and the Goblins" and credited to J. Berg Esenwein and Marietta Stockard. But this isn't really correct. For when Esenwein and Stockard first included the story in their own collection of Children's Stories and How to Tell Them (1917), they had a short preface (omitted from the reprints) which notes:

This story is re-told from a version given a Texas teacher by an old Scotch friend. The quaint, humorous style of the original has been kept, with condensations and slight shifts of events to give greater unity to the plot. It would be difficult to find a better Hallowe'en story, for there is just enough of the supernatural element, and the pictures are vivid and real. It is a pure fun-story of a high order.

The version that Esenwein and Stockard refer to was also called "The Woodman and the Goblins" and it appeared in The Elementary School Teacher for April 1904, where its authorship is given as by John Duncan of Edinburgh. The Texas teacher (signed only "M.F.") notes that the story "was told by Mr. Duncan to a group of little children just before Halloween. The children begged to be allowed to act it out."  A three-page, five-act version of the story as a play (with all the dialogue by the woodman)  is included right after Duncan's story in The Elementary School Teacher. M.F. notes that: "The initiative was the children's; the product is their own. . . .  They found their complete satisfaction in playing the story out to the school Halloween morning."  The tale reappeared in at least one US newspaper, The Pittsburgh Press, for 27 October 1912, just before Halloween. 

But the story doesn't end there. Recently a very rare children's book was reprinted. It is called The Woodman and the Elves, and it was originally published by Valentine & Sons of Dundee, Scotland.  It is undated, but the National Library of Scotland dates it to circa 1905. Its author/artist is given as John Duncan. It includes twelve full-page color illustrations. And the reprint claims that this John Duncan is the famous Scottish artist John Duncan (1866-1945), despite the fact that the only book published on John Duncan, The Paintings of John Duncan:A Scottish Symbolist (1994) by John Kemplay, doesn't mention it. Nor does this book mention the few other books that Duncan is known to have illustrated, like Donald A. Mackenzie's Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend (1917). But it tells us, biographically, that Duncan came from Scotland to Chicago in 1900 to teach art at the Chicago Institute, and returned after the 1902-1903 academic year. Thus he was in America for three years just prior to "The Woodman and the Goblins" appearing in The Elementary School Teacher, a U.S. publication. 

That the story is by the same John Duncan is confirmed by an article in the October 1903 issue of Good Housekeeping, "Some New Drawings to Old Fairy Tales," which includes one of Duncan's rough drawings for "The Woodman and the Elves."

The new reprint of The Woodman and the Elves is an elegant volume, with the full-page illustrations on the right-hand page, and a facing page text translated into Swedish, but with the corresponding original English text printed at the rear of the book. Translated as Skogvaktaren och vättarno, it was printed in Tallinn, Estonia, in 2020. It has a new afterword  by Hans Rosenberg (in Swedish), and a paragraph of endorsement by David Tibet (in English, calling it "one of the oddest children's stories I have ever read" and noting "I love this book, which does indeed feel like a dream both in its reading and in its recalling"). The book (ISBN 9789197875158) is priced at €15 plus shipping, and to order it, email: info <at>

There are thus three main versions of the tale. The 1904 text by John Duncan; the revised version by Duncan published in book form circa 1905; and the 1917 rewritten version by Esenwein and Stockard. I prefer the text of the first version, it is livelier, with more detail and local color. Duncan's subsequent revision may have been hampered by having the text on one page with an illustration on the facing page. That likely limited how much text could appear on the page before an illustration. (And Duncan's book text has an unfortunate extra paragraph at the end, leaving the woodman to find himself alone again.)  The Esenwein and Stockard rewritten version is diminished from the original. Thus I share the 1904 text below (click on the images to make them larger).  Enjoy.