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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Andrew Lang (1844–1912)

ANDREW LANG was an active and conspicuous figure among the British writing men of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His range was a very wide one; his culture was sound, and his individuality had a piquancy which scholarship had not reduced to a pale conformity. When one thinks of Lang, one thinks too of Gosse and Dobson, of Stevenson and Henley,—authors who stand for the main streams of tendency about 1890.

Lang was a Scotchman; one of the many gifted men of letters that wonderful little land has sent down to do literary battle in London. He was carefully educated at Edinburgh Academy, St. Andrews University, and Balliol College (Oxford), laying a solid foundation for his future accomplishment in letters. At Oxford he did brilliant work, and was rewarded by a Merton Fellowship in 1868. Going up to London, he began to write for the periodicals, and soon the first on his long list of volumes was given to the public. This was a volume of verse, ‘Ballades and Lyrics of Old France’ (1872); containing both translations, and original poems on the same model. Mr. Lang wooed the Muses at intervals ever after. His poetry shows culture and taste, and has grace and felicity, with a lightness of touch and a ready wit that make it pleasant reading. Along with his friends Dobson and Gosse, he started the imitation of older French verse forms; an exotic cult no doubt making more flexible the technique of English writers, but otherwise having little significance for native poetry. The titles of other of Lang’s books of verse indicate the nature of his metrical work: ‘Ballades in Blue China,’ ‘Ballades and Verses Vain,’ ‘Rhymes à la Mode,’ ‘Rhymes Old and New,’ ‘Ban and Arrière Ban’;—there is a suggestion of vers de société about it all which the contents justify. Now and then Lang would do something of a broader, more imaginative sort; but the general impression of his literary work is that of a polished craftsman and well-equipped scholar rather than a born poet. His poetry does not concern itself with large elemental things; but he can do a light thing very perfectly, and had the good sense not to try to do more.

Lang’s restless spirit also turned occasionally to fiction; his taste leading him towards romanticism, sometimes into melodrama. ‘The Mark of Cain’ (1886) has a penny-dreadful atmosphere redeemed by its literary flavor. ‘The World’s Desire,’ written in collaboration with Rider Haggard, is a striking and skillfully done story in which the romantic myth and legend of Greece are utilized. ‘The Maid of Fife’ (1895) is a capital historic tale, with Joan of Arc as the central figure. In this fiction, again, perhaps the scholar and trained worker are more obvious than the literary creator. Yet Lang’s art creed, squarely opposed to modern realism and the probing of social problems after the current manner, has affected his own fiction happily; so that it is, to say the least, wholesome and enjoyable.

One of the most fruitful, successful phases of his work was ever scholarly editing and translation. Thus, Lang edited and translated several volumes of foreign fairy tales, of which the ‘Blue Fairy Book’ and the ‘Red Fairy Book’ are examples; has turned the Greek idyllists Theocritus, Bion, and Moschus into English prose of great beauty; and he gave English readers a really superb prose rendering of Homer; the Odyssey in collaboration with Professor Butcher, the Iliad with the help of Messrs. Leaf and Myers. His editing of standard literature was so very extensive that Lang was facetiously dubbed editor-in-general to the British nation. A good example of his more sustained scholarly work is the ‘Life of Lockhart’ (1896). Lang, moreover, was ever a vigorous student of anthropology; and his volumes ‘Custom and Myth’ (1884) and ‘Myth, Ritual, and Religion’ (1887 and 1899) are brilliant expositions of the modern theory of the universality of myths among primitive savages, contravening the older theory that certain myths are of exclusive Aryan development. Of somewhat more extended scope, though on the same general lines, are ‘The Making of Religion’ (1898) and ‘Magic and Religion’ (1901).

In his miscellaneous literary papers and lighter critical essays Lang is vastly entertaining. He appears as a free-lance of literature, always ready for a tilt; firm in his belief in the elder classics, and in newer classics like Scott and Dumas; cock-sure of his position, whimsically humorous or pettish, recondite of literary allusion, profuse in the display of learning. The essays are anything but dull, and one acknowledges their liveliness and quality, even if irritated by their tone or in profound disagreement with their dicta.

One of Lang’s favorite fields in his later years was Scottish history. He wrote ‘A History of Scotland from the Roman Occupation’ (1900), ‘Life of Prince Charles Edward’ (1900), ‘The Mystery of Mary Stuart’ (1901), ‘James VI. and the Gowrie Mystery’ (1902), ‘John Knox and the Reformation’ (1905), ‘A Defence of Sir Walter Scott and the Border Minstrelsy’ (1910).

Lang’s life, which was one of unceasing literary activity, ended in 1912.