Fantasising the Nation for Child Readers in Early Australian Fairy Tales


This article examines three collections of Australian fairy tales published between 1897 and 1925 and considers the ways in which they contributed to nation-building efforts. Atha Westbury’s Australian Fairy Tales (1897), J. M. Whitfeld’s The Spirit of the Bush Fire and Other Australian Fairy Tales (1898), and Hume Cook’s Australian Fairy Tales (1925) fantasise a nation into being through the fairy-tale genre. The associations of the European fairy-tale tradition with a distant past (‘once upon a time’) are mobilised to create a ‘ready-made’ set of traditions and cultural explanations through which the implied Australian child can understand a nation that was only federated in 1901. This ranged from creating origin stories for natural landmarks like J. M. Whitfeld, through to imagining well-developed fairy cities in the most isolated parts of Australia, far from the eyes of white settlers, as in Atha Westbury and Hume Cook’s collections. Stories by Cook and Westbury blur the distinction between fairy-tale characters and First Nations people, at once yoking imported traditions to the enduring history of First Nations peoples and replacing them in the cultural imaginary with mythical characters who have never existed.

Literary fairy tales came to be viewed as acceptable reading material for children from the mid-nineteenth century. These short stories, which often sought to convey a moral lesson, tended to adopt pre-modern European settings in which monarchs reigned and encounters with the natural world, such as forests and the animals that inhabited them, were common. White colonial settlement of Australia coincided with this re-orientation of the fairy tale to socialise child readers; local fairy tales were published from the 1870s and were an integral part of the slow evolution of Australian children’s literature. As John Stephens and Robyn McCallum explain, retold fantasy stories perform important cultural work: ‘Under the guise of offering children access to strange and exciting worlds removed from everyday experiences, they serve to initiate children into aspects of a social heritage, transmitting many of a culture’s central values and assumptions and a body of shared allusions and…

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Published 11 December 2022 in Volume 37 No.3. Subjects: Australian children's literature, Children's literature, Cultural & national identity, Folklore.

Cite as: Smith, Michelle J.. ‘Fantasising the Nation for Child Readers in Early Australian Fairy Tales.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 3, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.6a46417df4.