That Very Mab by Andrew Lang

Andrew Lang, Scottish anthropologist, journalist and writer of children’s fairy books, anonymously published the satire That Very Mab in 1885, with May Kendall, a poet.  The book follows Queen Mab’s tour of nineteenth century English society, with her knowledgeable owl companion, as an onlooker to a variety of characters and events. Whilst the book follows the trajectory of the fairy, each scene encountered by Mab, in individual chapters, can sit independently and discretely from the other. The book can be seen as a collection of stand-alone scenes but also as a united work.


Mab has received limited attention from academics. Lang’s biographer, Roger Lancelyn Green (1946, pp.65-6), and historian, Carol Silver (1999, p. 202), briefly cover the text, but so far no substantial analysis has occurred. Partially explaining this, Green (1946, p.66) describes the text as ‘dull and disappointing’. Alternatively, it can be described more correctly as misunderstood and deeply culturally intertextual. This paper briefly examines how Lang utilises Fairy Queen Mab’s experience of Victorian England to explore the juxtaposing themes of paganism, science and folklore during the fin de siècle.


Fairies always fascinated Lang. This interest became ‘even stronger though more scientific and academic’ in adulthood (Green, 1965, p.139). Furthermore, Orel (1984, p.149) describes Lang’s ‘hostile or unsympathetic’ relationship with his own age.  These features are unmistakable in Mab’s character, who demonstrates Lang’s tension with nineteenth century progress, particularly his fear of fading fairy-lore. The text follows her experience of Victorian England after missionaries despoil her pagan paradise in Samoa, a place possibly chosen by Lang to comment upon colonial tensions occurring there (Steinmentz, 2008, pp. 243-307). She tours England, presented by the narrator, as an unknowledgeable, antediluvian onlooker: ‘She was an anachronism hundreds of years on the wrong side; in fact, a relic of Paganism’ (Lang and Kendall, 1885, p.14). Mab sings a poem, mournful of Britain’s lost pagan roots:


Ah! Highly favoured Pagan, born

In some far hemisphere

Pity the British child forlorn,

And drop one sorrowing tear!

(Lang and Kendall, 1885, p.75)


For Lang, this poem represented the ‘genuine’ ancient folkloric fairy (1892).  Yoshino (2008, pp.231-2), discussing Lang’s other fictional fairies, argues his ideas separated a ‘culturally nationalist’, ‘genuine’ Scottish fairy belief, in contrast to ‘wrong’ kind of superficial modern fairy. This poem references Lang’s experience of the dying British fairy tradition.


Mab is used to satirically explore modern science and fairy belief. She is captured by a scientist, treated like a butterfly and categorised. When his son starts worshiping the fairy, the scientist proclaims to have discovered the origin of religion. ‘It is worshipping butterflies, with a service of fetich stones. The boy has returned to it by an act of unconscious inherited memory, derived from Palaeolitihic Man’ (Lang and Kendall, 1885, p.40). Silver (1999, p.202) describes this as ‘an amusing moment of self-satire’. It parodies anthropologists searching for the origins of religion, a topic that interested Lang throughout his career. When the boy is schooled, he develops the capacity for rational thought and ‘could no more have composed a hymn to a fairy than he could have endured a false quantity’ (Lang and Kendall, 1885, p. 206). Lang (1905, p.305) argued that schooling destroyed boys’ interest in fairyland, making them ‘no more capable than you or I of seeing fairies’. Mab, frames fairy belief in this new England as the irrational belief of children. When Mab asks if anyone believes in fairies, her owl companion replies: ‘A few of the children, perhaps, and a very, very few grown-up people’ (Lang and Kendall, 1885, p.22). Lang’s fears that fairy-lore is being demoted to the nursery are evident here.


Mab expresses pessimism for the fairies’ fate in the face of modernity by employing the folkloric theme of fairies retreating (Silver, 1999, pp.185-212). Consequently Mab retreats to the Admiralty Islands, just outside the realms of the British Empire:


There, till the civilisation that dogs the steps of the old folk-lore has driven her thence- with constitutions, and microscopes, and a higher Pantheism that leaves the old Pantheism in the lurch, and other advantages of the nineteenth century- she is secure. We trust that she is also happy, and that the shadow of the approaching hour when she will be ultimately reduced by scientific theologians to a symbol of some deeper verity, the conception of men whose under-standings could not copy, like ours, with abstract truth, is not cast heavily.

(Lang and Kendall, 1885, p.213).


This excerpt expresses Lang’s wariness of scientific progress that spreads geographically like Empire, hence, killing fairy-lore. Brown (1999, pp. 40-1) argues that Lang’s Princess Niente in A Princess Nobody reflected Queen Victoria’s position as ‘everybody and nobody’. Likewise, Victorian fictional fairies were becoming little more than symbolic of their pagan past, cut-outs of Shakespeare’s Queen Mab. As such, Mab is a dynamic character who Lang employs to symbolise perceived tensions between nineteenth century folklore, Empire and industrialisation, hallmarking the changing perspective of fairies from ancient folkloric creatures to benign Edwardian fairies.


Works Cited


Allen, G. (1885) ‘That very Mab’, Longman’s Magazine (November), pp. 83-87.

Brown, E. (1999) ‘The influence of Queen Victoria on England’s literary fairy tale’, Marvels and Tales, 13 (1), pp.31-51.

Green, R. (1946) Andrew Lang: a critical biography. Leicester: Edmund Ward.

Green, R. (1965) Tellers of tales: children’s books and their authors from 1800 to 1968. London: Kaye & Ward.

Lang, A. and Kendall, M. (1885) That very Mab. London:  Longmans, Green and Co, 1885.

Lang, A. (1892) ‘Modern Fairy Tales’, Illustrated London News, 3 December.

Lang, A. (1905) Adventures among books. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1905.

Orel, H. (1984) Victorian Literary Critics. London: Macmillan.

Silver, C. (1999) Strange and secret peoples: fairies and Victorian consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Steinmetz, G. (2008) The devil’s handwriting: precoloniality and the German colonial state in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Yoshino, Y. (2008) ‘Writing the Borders: Fairies and Ambivalent National Identity in Andrew Lang’s The Golk of Fairnilee’,  in Alcobia-Murphy, S.  and Maxwell, M. (eds) The enclave of my nation: crosscurrents in Irish and Scottish studies. Aberdeen: AHRC Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies, pp.227-241.



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