The ghosts of illustrators past continue to make their appearance in a number of re-editions of traditional fairy tales. The late 19th and early 20th centuries -- the Golden Age of children's book illustration -- gave us such artists as Gustave Dore, Ivan Bilibin, Kay Nielsen, Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham , and many others who turned their considerable talents to the faeriem realms. The imaginative demands of illustrating fairy tales provided these artists with challenges to their visionary powers, and the results remain among the masterpieces of book design and illustrative art.
Surely Michael Hague is responding to this artistic legacy in his recent illustrations for the well-known Scandinavian fairy tale, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." The cover of the book summons up Arthur Rackham's influence: sinuous roots of trees weave themselves into the shapes of the forest spirits among which the frightened maiden -- the beauty -- must ride atop the back of the beast who has bargained for her hand.
However, Hague's treatment of the story does not satisfy -- except superficially -- the expectation that this might be a significant extension of the artistic and literary tradition within which Hague is working. For one thing, his retelling of the story (with his wife, Kathleen) is undistinguished. It merely imitates or transposes the wording of Peter Asbjornsen's 1904 adaptation of the tale from the oral tradition and, in the process, drains off much of this earlier version's colloquial vitality. More importantly, though, Hague makes some fundamental mistakes in his illustrations. In a number of places, the illustrations are out of sync with the action of the story, fracturing the reader's involvement with the book. At other points, Hague's pictures are cluttered with unnecessary detail or poorly composed. When the prince is released from his spell in the troll's castle at the end of the story, he is lost in a crowd of monsters in the lower left-hand corner of the page. Hague seems to have been more preoccupied with getting these creatures right than he was with the prince, who looks more like a bearded boy than a romantic figure, not someone to be followed to the ends of the earth by the grief-stricken heroine. Some of Hague's illustrations are very good, but he still has a long way to go to meet the test of the previous masters of this art form.
Mercer Mayer's version of "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" is another of his visual tours de force much like his "Beauty and the Beast" of several years ago. When Mayer is "on," as he is in quite a few of the illustrations in this volume, he has the ability to take the reader's breath away. The translucent colors of his pictures, his meticulous sense of detail, the extraordinary feeling he has for his characters -- whether they are his romantic portraits of the maiden or the nightmarish demons who capture the prince and lurk in the shadows of the troll's castle -- all these, and many other elements in his illustrations, give his work its unmistakable signature. One wants to touch his pictures. They are so convincing, so lifelike. Mayer's illustrations are so good, in fact, that for all practical purposes they dominate his story line. Mayer has not simply reprocessed the tale. In his version he combines elements from "The Frog Prince" and his own fantasy. It would have been better if Mayer had not introduced these new characters and motifs.While they are legitimate liberties that he has taken, they also tend to overload the story with too many new elements, losing at times the simple lines of the original story.
Clearly, Mayer's metier is that of an illustrator -- one who can be bold and tender, earthy and ethereal. Still, he needs to have his exquisite visual talent coupled with more fully realized and poetic texts. Then the poetry of his own art would be fully complemented, as it deserves to be.
James Riordan's and Errol le Cain's collaboration on the Russian fairy tale "The Three Magic Gifts," though it is not as visually overwhelming as Mayer's work, fares quite a bit better.In fact, it is a thoroughly enjoyable book, precisely because neither the artist nor the reteller takes casually his share of the responsibility for shaping a unified book.
Riordan's text preserves the flavor of the original tale, even breaking into the rhymes that are so common in the Russian skazkim as he tells us of Ivan the Rich ("In a word, he was well to do. And crafty too.") and his trusting brother , Ivan the Poor: All he owned was a cat by the fire And a frog in the mire, Seven children with nothing to eat: No cabbage soup, not a scrap of meat.
The story sings along, as it sends the kind, starving Ivan through a series of adventures that reward him with marvelous gifts -- a magic tablecloth, a goat who gives gold instead of milk -- only to get the short end of the stick when he agrees to lend these presents to his greedy brother. In the end, Ivan the Rich is given a taste of his own medicine, leaving Ivan the Poor "in good health and good cheer,/Growing fatter from year to year."
Errol le Cain's illustrations draw on the now popular images of Russian folk art. But he is no mere copier of these boldly colored, evocative motifs. Rather, he abstracts the style of Russian decorative art, simplifying it and blending its vibrant qualities into a uniquely expressive style of his own.
There is not a false note in this book. While the book is large and will dramatically hold the interest of a younger child or group of children, at the same time it offers the possibility of an intimately shared experience between an adult and a child. This updating of an old, old tale will keep its freshness for many readings.
"Russian Fairy Tales" newly translated by Robert Chandler with illustrations by the noted Russian artist Ivan Bilibin is in a class by itself. Bilibin's genius carries the reader aloft on truly memorable flights, as striking today as they were nearly a hundred years ago. Part of Bilibin's power as an illustrator lies in his ability to envision those indelible moments of the fairy tales (Prince Ivan at the crossroads; Baba-Yaga flying through the woods on her pestle , brandishing her mortar and broom). He embroiders these human and supernatural turning points with borders and inserts that reverberate with the imagery of the story. Each is a kind of chord or passage in a visual symphony. One lingers over these pictures, studies them, returns to them. And, as in the best fairy tale illustrations, they not only advance the story, but they stand as finished works, to be admired in their own right.
Robert Chandler's translations of the seven classic tales contained in this volume are somewhat formal and at times miss the sweeping grandeur of the Russian originals. But they are more than adequate and much better than the anonymous, journeyman translations of these tales with the Bilibin illustrations that have been exported from Russia in recent years.
This collection is a welcome addition to any fairy tale library. Bilibin captures the essence of the Slavic character imbedded in these tales -- flamboyant, generous, free-spirited, heroic, hauntingly beautiful, sacrificing, stoical, and at the same time dreadfully facinated with death, melancholy, poverty, and power. Bilibin's work is no hollow, jewel-encrusted Easter egg for the czar. Instead, it is an unflinching glimpse into the ambivalences, the soaring heights and lower depths, of the Russian soul.
It is against works like Bilibin's that the contemporary illustrator of fairy tales must be measured. If it is true that to illustrate fairy tales, the artist must first visit these magical realms in his own imagination, then Bilibin has traveled long and far and deep to provide us with these glimpses of that "thrice-tenth kingdom." And if we are to have another Golden Age, our illustrators will have to do the same.