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Andrew Lang

Sometime Fellow of Merton College, Oxford
1844 to 1912

Andrew Lang was an unusual Gifford lecturer. Like other Gifford lecturers, he was scholar, but not of the natural sciences. He was a classicist, compiler of folklore and mythology, anthropologist, and historian. Also, like other early Gifford lecturers, he was interested in the controversial field of “psychical research”. He authored the books The Book of Dreams and Ghosts (1897), Magic and Religion (1901) and The Secret of the Totem (1905) and even served in 1911 as president of the Society for Psychical Research, a position held by several other Gifford lecturers, such as Arthur Balfour and William James. Lang was a poet (publishing five books), a novelist, a biographer (his edition of Sir Walter Scott ‘has not been surpassed’; that on Lockhart is ‘exemplary’), editor, essayist and belletrist (he was ‘a very significant literary figure’) and was called the best-known journalist of his day.

Born in 1844, educated primarily at Scottish universities, St Andrews and Glasgow, he graduated from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1868. He was a fellow of Merton College until 1874. In 1875, he married Leonora Alleyne; together they translated and adapted traditional folk and fairy tales, which is what Lang is best known for today. Their Blue Fairy Book (1889) ‘has become a classic’. All of his ten books of fairy tales remain in print.

Much of his professional life played out in London, where he wrote for the Daily News and Morning Post. As literary editor of Longman’s Magazine, he did much ‘to form literary opinion in the late nineteenth century’. His humour and extremely dry irony were characteristic of his criticism in such works as Letters to Dead Authors (1886) and How to Fail in Literature (1890). His conservative bent (he advocated romance over realism) may have been responsible for his hostility to the novels of Henry James and Thomas Hardy and his support of Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard.

From the 1870s to the 1890s, Lang’s classicism and anthropology saw their heyday. Here one finds his versions of the Odyssey (1879) and the Iliad (1882), both of which are ‘still highly regarded’. Custom and Myth was published in 1884; his Myth, Literature and Religion in 1887. As the century turned, so did his interests: Scottish history became his focus. His substantial History of Scotland (1900–1907) had a highly unusual perspective. In utilizing new material for The Mystery of Mary Stuart (1901), he provided a sensitive understanding of the woman. More controversial was his critique of 16th-century Scottish theologian and reformer John Knox in John Knox and the Reformation (1905). Louis Stott says ‘Lang deserves a place as an important Scottish writer.’

He died in Aberdeen in 1912. His ‘influential’ anthropological work Highways and Byways of the Border was completed by his wife.

  • David Kahan, University of Glasgow