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The Child's Own Book
CHARLES ELIOT NORTON
THE selected stories in The Child’s Own Book were the favorites of my early years, and now, an old man, I prize them still, for they served me as the path by which I entered into the land of Romance, then first learning the names and figures of the great characters which have occupied that delightful country ever since the first story-tellers found their way into it; and, returning from it, brought news of it to our everyday world. To make familiar acquaintance in childhood with these famous and noble personages, is to secure friends who will last us through life — heroes, princes, adventurers, in whose good company we, too, can adventure in the pleasant realm of fancy. The Seven Champions of Christendom become for us the defenders of the true faith of poetry against the barbaric hordes of the infidels of modern prose. All the magic and glory and wonder of the East exist for us in the lamp of Aladdin, in the cave of the Forty Thieves, in the Genie whom Solomon. had imprisoned, in the voyages of Sindbad the Sailor, whose adventures so astonished the Caliph Haroun al Raschid that he had the last of them written in letters of gold and deposited in his Treasury. And from the magic of the East we easily enter into the enchantments of Fairy-land, on the trail of Cinderella’s little glass slipper, and find the purse of Fortunatus, and share in the happy ending of the trials of Beauty and the Beast. And from Fairy-land the journey is not long to our own original native country, in the old days of King Arthur, when there were still giants and ogres to be found in it; and we children climb his beanstalk with Jack, or go along with the other Jack on his successful adventures in the killing of the bad giants; and then, coming down a few centuries, we help, while the tears run down our cheeks, the kind robin redbreasts to cover the Children in the Wood with the unwithered leaves, and have part with little Dick Whittington in the good fortune which his famous cat earned for him.
These are some of the excursions into the world of poetry on which The Child’s Own Book takes us. They are travels in youth that leave to us a thousand memories which have the perpetual charm of the childhood of the world interwoven with that of our own happy childish recollections.
When this precious little collection of stories was first gathered together I have not been able to learn. Enquiries recently made have failed to bring out information as to the date of the first edition, nor has a copy been found of any earlier edition than that of 1830. In an edition without date, called the fourteenth, which, much altered and not improved by many omissions and additions, was published in London, apparently about 1850, the introduction by the original editor seems to be preserved. Its quaint style and old-fashioned moralizing indicate that it was probably written near the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is perhaps worth quoting in full, to show the intention of the worthy and scrupulous compiler.
“It must be evident to all who reflect much upon the subject of early education that many little books have been written which contain stories, anecdotes, legends, etc., well calculated to engage the infant mind; and to lead it gradually, by the flowery paths of amusement and pleasing moral instruction, toward those higher branches of literature, which must at a later period occupy the attention of the well-educated; but owing to the laxity of principle in some of our most popular tales, careful instructors of youth are frequently compelled to withhold real sources of pleasure and improvement from the minds and hearts of their pupils rather than run the risk of contaminating them. It is difficult to make a selection; besides which, many excellent compositions for childhood, by writers of high celebrity, are not to be procured in a detached state.
“To exclude, therefore, everything injurious to the moral growth of the youthful reader, and to condense in one volume a complete Juvenile Library, has been the task (modest in its pretensions, but far from unimportant in its results) with which the Editor has charged himself. Many of the pieces have been given entire, while others have been condensed and simplified to the comprehension of childhood. This plan has enabled the Editor to combine great variety with the utmost economy.
“In conclusion, it is trusted that the labours of the Editor will prove successful, in making easy to his little friends, the juvenile public, an important step in the ladder of knowledge; and that, in so doing, he has delighted the imagination without corrupting the heart.”
No one of the stories is here printed for the first time, but the tales are brought together from various printed sources, French and English. It was the Arabian Nights from which came Ali Baba, Aladdin, and the other Eastern stories, here retold in simple and lively brevity; it was from the delightful Fairy Tales which Charles Perrault, recalling them as he had heard them in his own childhood, wrote down for his own children, and published in 1697 for the benefit of all children, that our compiler took the stories which had been listened to in the chimney-corner with rapt attention from time immemorial, — Cinderella, Blue Beard, Puss in Boots, and the like. Some of them, Tom Thumb for instance, had been told in England as long as they had been in France, and had become not less deeply rooted in fireside tradition. Other stories had a genuine English origin, such as the Children in the Wood and the History of Little Jack. All were good, for all bore the stamp of the approval of many a generation of young hearers, who had found in them the warrant of their childish beliefs, and held them as true narratives of that world of fancy wherein they rejoiced to dwell, and which was more real to them than that actual world on which they looked out from their nursery windows.
To these old stories the compiler had, indeed, added some modern ones, not perhaps unworthy to rank with them, but of different tone and color, such as Goody Two Shoes and a brief compend of Robinson Crusoe. From this edition these later stories are omitted, partly because of their incongruity with the main body of the tales contained in it, and partly because the best of them are to be printed in other volumes of the series to which this volume belongs.
It is safe to say that no other book in this series contains more pleasant nourishment for the poetic imagination, or will serve as a better introduction to the poets who in later life are the best of those friends of the spirit which a man can make for himself.
In these days we live and move in prose. We leave many of the sweetest flowers in the garden untended: they grow stunted, they wither, and in their places we devote ourselves to the cultivation of pot-herbs and kitchen vegetables. But the quickening and healthy growth of the imagination is not for pleasure only: on its health depend the depth and vivacity of our sympathies with our fellows and the world in which we live; the truth and purity of our sentiments; the soundness of our judgments, and the right direction and control of our wills.
This little volume may well answer as the Open Sesame which shall give to the child entrance through the imagination into the treasure-house of all the best wealth which the world of books can afford.