The Pirate Princess and Oth­er Fairy Tales

Neil Philip; Mark Weber, illus.
  • Review
By – August 6, 2012

Rab­bi Nah­man of Brat­slav, great-grand­son of the founder of the mys­ti­cal Hasidic Jew­ish move­ment, told sto­ries in Yid­dish and Hebrew in the late 18th and ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry. These fairy tales have been pre­served and trans­lat­ed word-for-word by his fol­low­ers and adapt­ed by oth­ers, like Hans Chris­t­ian Andersen’s cre­ations, as if they were folk­lore. Here, Neil Philip retells sev­en of Rab­bi Nahman’s more child-friend­ly sto­ries. Four of these — The Pirate Princess,” The Gem Prince,” The Mer­chant and the Poor Man,” and The Lost Princess” — adapt Rab­bi Nahman’s orig­i­nal fairy tales. Three — The Fix­er,” The Turkey Prince,” and The Trea­sure”— adapt tra­di­tion­al, well-known tales which the teacher also told. 

Rab­bi Nah­man spun intri­cate sto­ries. The Mer­chant and the Poor Man” fills 22 pages and involves mul­ti­ple changes of for­tune and test­ing of faith­ful­ness. On one lev­el, Rab­bi Nah­man meant for his tales to teach repen­tance and redemp­tion for repair­ing an imper­fect world filled with imper­fect peo­ple. On anoth­er lev­el, the tales are pure enter­tain­ment, with plots which twist and turn. And then there are Kab­bal­is­tic sym­bols; a princess may be the wan­der­ing part of God.” In the title sto­ry, an emperor’s clever daugh­ter out­wits pirates, mer­chants, sailors, women-in-wait­ing, and kings who desire her, until she is, in dis­guise, crowned king and becomes reunit­ed with the prince she loves. The Pirate Princess” and The Lost Princess,” have been retold more often than the oth­er two orig­i­nal Nah­man cre­ations which are includ­ed here, and it is a treat to have all four in this collection. 

In his elo­quent intro­duc­tion, Philip presents back­ground on Rab­bi Nah­man and his tales and explains his own approach to chang­ing these sto­ries for a gen­er­al read­er­ship.” Twelve pages of notes detail and jus­ti­fy spe­cif­ic deci­sions Philip made. The notes also draw psy­cho­log­i­cal insight from Rab­bi Nahman’s bat­tle with depres­sion and the death of his son. They draw par­al­lels to folk­lore motifs from Chi­nese and Slav­ic cul­tures. These live­ly notes will be of more inter­est to adults, but they are print­ed in the same read­able 13.5 point font. Philip’s nar­ra­tive style is straight­for­ward, with­out talk­ing down to young read­ers. He lets the plot car­ry the excite­ment. The 8 12” x 11” pages are illus­trat­ed through­out with full-col­or gouache art, dis­play­ing a style of frozen action and sur­face expres­sion. One might ques­tion some of the edi­to­r­i­al deci­sions made in the pub­lish­ing of this book. Why allot full pages for illus­tra­tions when the spots show more vital­i­ty? Why not ref­er­ence more of the retellings of Rab­bi Nahman’s sto­ries? Should Nahman’s name also be on the cov­er of the book? Still, the pre­sen­ta­tion of Rab­bi Nahman’s tales in this well-researched, large for­mat, large-font, col­or­ful­ly illus­trat­ed col­lec­tion is unique and will expand the audi­ence for his won­der­ful fairy tales. An intro­duc­tion, notes for adults, and a bib­li­og­ra­phy are includ­ed. The sto­ries are for ages 8 – 12.

Sharon Elswit, author of The Jew­ish Sto­ry Find­er and a school librar­i­an for forty years in NYC, now resides in San Fran­cis­co, where she shares tales aloud in a local JCC preschool and vol­un­teers with 826 Valen­cia to help stu­dents write their own sto­ries and poems.

Discussion Questions