Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Golden Phoenix; or, the Magic Tree

The Golden Phoenix & other French Canadian fairy tales / Marius Barbeau; retold by Michael Hornyansky.
New York: Scholastic, 1965.
128 p.
(also published under the title: The Magic Tree)

I first read this book long ago, in grade school, thanks to Scholastic. I loved it, already being a huge fan of folk and fairy tales at a young age. I read all the Lang colour Fairy books, a whole series of fairy tales from specific countries, and many others; but I remember this book especially as one I returned to many times. Just recently, both Kailana and Nicola read this collection, and they both enjoyed it. Because of this, it was on my mind when I went on vacation last week -- and I went to my parents where this book caught my eye, sitting on their shelf. So I reread it. And what fun that was! It was just as good as I'd recalled. There are eight tales in the collection, and as Barbeau says in the intro, they are stories from elsewhere, with long pedigrees, which had been passed down orally and eventually became particularly French Canadian tales which he gathered from old storytellers.

They use many of the familiar tropes of fairy tales -- three sons have to make their fortunes, with the youngest always the luckiest of course; princesses abound; fairies, magic and trickery appear. But in one of my favourites, The Princess of Tomboso, some of these themes are turned upside down. This story begins with a common situation. A king is dying and leaves his three sons each one magical item which will make their fortune. Jacques, the youngest, decides to go to Tomboso to try to win over the beautiful princess who lives there. Alas, it turns out she is not such a wonderful princess after all; she is a thief who steals Jacques' magic belt and sets her guards on him. Jacques, slow learner that he is, convinces his brothers to lend him their magic objects so he can go back and try again. Both times the princess steals his belongings and has him beaten and thrown out of the castle. But she has another characteristic; she is very fond of apples. And the last time Jacques is tossed out, he ends up in a magical orchard full of apples. When he eats one, his nose begins to grow longer and longer. Alarmed, he crawls over to a nearby plum tree, and as he eats those, his nose shrinks again. His big plan is hatched -- disguising himself, he returns to Tomboso with a basket full of apples. When the princess eats them, he then disguises himself as a doctor and offers her the plums as antidote, on condition that she return his stolen goods. She reluctantly agrees, but as a lesson to her, Jacques only gives her enough plums for her nose to return to a nice 12 inches long. Then he returns home to his brothers, restoring their magical inheritance, and the three brothers all live happily ever after together. It's full of clever quips and is really quite amusing in its nasty princess.

This subdued humour is also in evidence in the final story, The Sly Thief of Valenciennes. This is a more episodic tale in which the eponymous thief succeeds in many daring thefts and is unable to be caught, despite the King and his advisors' many plans to do so. Finally, on the Princess' suggestion, the King offers to make the thief his son-in-law and give him a castle to live in, if he will only turn himself in and vow to stop his thieving ways. The sly thief agrees.

"Your Majesty," he said to the King, "I had only three ambitions: to be as rich as you, to have a castle as fine as yours, and to marry your daughter. Now that I have achieved these ambitions, there is no longer any reason for me to be a thief."

And he kept his word. He gave back the treasure he had stolen from the tower, and from that day forward he never stole again. He did take money from people against their will, and in broad daylight. But princes can do that without breaking the law, and it is not called stealing; it is called taxing.

This is a wonderful collection of stories, with pen and ink illustrations in a simple style which I remembered fondly (oh, that Princess of Tomboso!). Recommended to anyone with an interest in fairy tales; there are some entertaining versions of vaguely familiar tales here.


  1. I am so happy to see this little out-of-print book making the blogging rounds! :)

  2. Kailana - me too, and thanks for reminding me of it in your post. :)

  3. I absolutely love this book!!! But now that I am older the book has been read so many times and the binding is ripped!:P

  4. I am an Alternative High School teacher and I read this book in 1972. I never forgot it. As a matter of fact I memorized it! I now use "The Golden Fox" (I adapted the Golden Phoenix to use origami and teach symmetry) The Sly Theif (a lesson on ethics) and the Princess of Tomboso (a drama based lesson) in my classroom!

    The children still love those stories.


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