The Rose and the Ring was written while Thackeray was writing The Newcomes (1853-1855). It is a fairy story with a pantomime plot and many pantomime characters. The magical element of the story appeals to children, as do the names of the characters, such as Valoroso, Hedzoff, and Gruffanuff. The story contains dramatic dialogue, dreadful horrors, and much fighting. The detailed narratives, such as Gruffanuff’s transfor-mation into and from a doorknob, are fantastically ingenious.
The story is more than an extravagant fairy tale. It works on two levels, in much the same way as does Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). In The Rose and the Ring, Thackeray makes fun of fairy tale conventions. Additionally, irony and burlesques embedded in the narrative and action question the morals and traditions of fairy tales. Adults can appreciate the meaning in Thackeray’s less obvious names, such as the vegetable nobility of Crim Tartary, the Spinachi, the Broccoli, and the Artichochi, who are under the rule of King Padella (or frying pan). The ridiculous conflict between the kingdoms has the ring of the satire of Swift’s conflict between the Lilliputians and the Blefuscans. In addition, Thackeray parodies the evangelical children’s stories of Master Tommy Goodchild and Miss Biddy Benevolent, the “improving books” for children that were replacing old, carefree fairy tales.
The theme of the story is plain. The prosperous characters, particularly those who possess Fairy Blackstick’s magic rose and ring—Prince Bulbo, Angelica, and Gruffanuff—all suffer in character because of their prosperity. Rosalba and Giglio, to whom Blackstick has given “a little misfortune,” on the other hand, turn out admirably. One of Thackeray’s contemporaries saw that the characters, although fantastic, act on the principles of human nature.
Critics have noted that stylistically, the story is one of Thackeray’s most perfect performances. Unlike many of his novels that fail to be unified, this story is carefully finished in all of its details. The illustrations that accompany the text are droll and delightful. Although it is one of Thackeray’s best-loved books, it is too domestic to compete with the universal appeal of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871).