Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

M. R. James and Hans Christian Andersen

M R James and Hans Christian Andersen

Besides writing ghost stories, cataloguing manuscript collections, palaeography and biblical apocrypha, M R James possessed another interest in Folklore and Fairytales, particularly the fairytales
of the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen. Stephen Gaslee wrote in his memoirs, that James had learned Danish and Swedish on many of their long European train journeys in order to be able to translate Nordic folktales and Andersen's stories from their original native tongue.

There was much speculation as to where this interest was first kindled for James, he noted in his letters home to his parents when at his prepatory school Temple Grove that he wanted to learn more about “Leprechauns” and other fairies, but it may have been the under librarian, at Cambridge University Library when James was an undergraduate, Erikur Magnusson, an Icelander, who inspired this love of Nordic folklore certainly he was very well versed in that and specifically Scandinavian fairytales.

His interest in fairytales extended to the Celtic tales of Ireland which he read on one of his visits there in 1892, and even before his first visit to Denmark he had read Andersen and the Danish “old Ballads” igniting his further excavations of native Jutland tales which were used to such great effect in his ghost stories, like The Rose Garden which has a revenant bound by the use of a garden stake, which can be found in old Danish and Jutland folklore.

His friend James McBryde who was the illustrator for James’s first collection, Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary, (1904), was also inspired by James’s love of folklore and fairytales, enough so that he created the cartoon Story of a Troll Hunt depicting Himself, Will Stone and James on their journeys through Denmark in search of a troll, James also wrote the accompanying text.

This interest found further fertile ground when in 1924 he agreed to collaborate on a small volume of translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales with Arthur Benson, but after Benson’s death in 1927, this project was abandoned by James until in the spring of 1927 when he began the arduous task of translating the texts into English. In the following year he gave two speeches one at Cambridge and another at Eton on Andersen. By late 1928 most of the forty stories had been replicated into English.

These translations bore a fruitful result and in 1929 the publishers Faber and Faber took up the Andersen mantle and agreed to publish the now substantial book, which ran into nearly 350 pages. It came out in 1940 with colour illustrations by Christine Jackson, forty stories by Hans Christian Andersen and a surprising inclusion of two further stories by E.T.Kristensen, The Green Boy and The 3 Witches and the Green silk boy. This version was very well received and the Times ran an article in its literary supplement, on the 20th of November 1930 calling James’s translation, “renderings closer to the original and a text that runs smoother than we are used to.”

James’s own reasons for his interest in Andersen was thus, “I am very fond of the originals and do not think that justice has been done to them by any of the versions I have come across” His book was he said, “In nature of a tribute to a beloved author, an admirable people and a most delightful country.”

James’s ghost stories have two specific settings in a Scandinavian country, No.13, which is set in Denmark and Count Magnus, set in Sweden. However his travels across Scandinavia certainly provided the inspiration for not just his ghost stories, but the inclusion of folklore in the stories and his full length children’s fairytale novel, The Five Jars, as well as his translation of Hans Christian Andersen.


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