The art of Kay Nielsen

East of the Sun, West of the Moon illustrated by Kay Nielsen

On a chilly, mid-December morning, my thoughts turned to fairy tales of the north, and then to the great Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen. Here's a reflection on this great artist's work and life....

The period in art history now referred to as the Golden Age of Book Illustration occurred in London at the end of the 19th century and in the dawning years of the 20th -- growing out of the reassessment of Book Arts fostered by the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts-&-Crafts movement, and aided by advances in printing techniques that made the publication of sumptuously illustrated volumes suddenly economically feasible. As a result, a number of the greatest book illustrators the world has ever known were clustered in London during those years: Walter Crane, Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Charles and William Heath Robinson, Charles Ricketts, Lawrence Housman, Henry Ford, Jean de Bosschère, and many others -- including a young Dane named Kay (pronounced "Kigh") Nielsen, who turned up in the city in 1911 at the tender age of twenty-five with a series of black-and-white drawings inspired by Aubrey Beardsley under his arm.

Kay had been born into an illustrious theater family in Copenhagen in 1886, growing up with the trappings of wealth and fame and a strong interest in the arts. (His father was the director of the Royal Danish Theater, his mother was a much-revered actress, and visitors to the Nielsen household included Ibsen and Grieg.) At eighteen, Kay left Copenhagen for Paris to study art in Montparnasse. It was there that he, like so many art students, discovered Beardsley's work, with its fine use of line and ornamentation and its aura of dark romance. Beardsley's drawings made a considerable impression on him, containing as it did two of the things he loved best: imagery from myth and folklore, and the strong influence of Japanese art. Under Beardsley's spell, Nielsen produced a series of morbidly romantic black-and-white drawings titled The Book of Death, portraying the tragic love of Pierrot for a young dying maiden. Moving from Paris to Beardsley's homeland, Kay mounted a major London gallery exhibition of the series in 1911. Mixed in with these darker drawings were designs for watercolors based on classic fairy tales -- the art for which the young painter would henceforth be best known.

Pop! Out flew the moon.

On the strength of this work, Kay soon received his first English book commission: In Powder and Crinoline, a volume of fairy tales retold by Arthur Quiller-Couch. The book appeared in 1913, instantly garnering wide acclaim. A year later, when he was just twenty-eight, Kay published the work that would be his most famous: East of the Sun, West of the Moon: Old Tales from the Norse. With these two volumes, Kay Nielsen came out from under Aubrey Beardsley's long shadow into a style that was all his own -- one that incorporated the influence of Romantic Art, Art Nouveau, Japanese woodcuts, and Chinese prints, yet gave them a chilly Nordic elegance and a modernist look. The original paintings from these two volumes were exhibited in London in 1915 (book artists depended on the sales from such shows, for they earned very little from the published works), and then formed the core of a Nielsen exhibition in New York two years later.

In 1917, Kay traveled from New York back to Copenhagen and became, during the post-war years, deeply involved with the theater again. Collaborating with his close friend Johannes Poulson (now known as a pioneer of Danish cinema, but then a young stage actor and producer), he designed elaborate sets and costumes for Adam Oehlenschlaeger's Aladdin at the Danish State Theater, as well as for a lavish production of Scaramouche, with music by Sibelius. It was during these years, between 1918 and 1922, that the artist also created his sensual illustrations for The Arabian Nights, incorporating a melange of influences from Eastern art to the Italian Renaissance. Publication plans for the series fell through, but the paintings were shown in a London exhibition in 1924, along with new illustrations for a volume of Hans Christian Andersen tales.

So the man gave him a pair of snow shoes

Kay married his beloved, charismatic wife Ulla Pless-Schmidt in 1926, and the two of them lived in grand style for the next decade in Copenhagen -- where Kay, due to his popular books and innovative theater work, was now a celebrity just as his mother and father had been. In 1936, the theater work led to a prominent job in Hollywood, creating designs for Max Reinhardt's Everyman at the Hollywood Bowl -- then Kay stayed on at the request of Walt Disney to design the "Bald Mountain" sequence of the animated film Fantasia. When war broke out in Europe again, Ulla joined Kay in Hollywood, along with their two Scotty dogs, and the couple settled in to a new life in America. At first, it was a life as luxurious as the one they'd left behind -- but gradually, Kay's working relationship with Disney Studios deteriorated...and when he turned to his own art again he found, to his astonishment and despair, it had fallen quite out of fashion.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon illustrated by Kay Nielsen

Then began a long stretch of years where jobs were few and far between, and Kay's once highly sought after paintings became impossible to sell. His disadvantage, notes Hildegarde Flanner, a friend and neighbor in southern California,

"lay in the narrowness of his range in a day that was suspicious of fantasy -- unless neurotic or Joycean -- that 'the Golden Age of Illustration' in which his name had been notable along with those of Morris, Beardsley, Boecklin, Pyle, Rackham, Dulac, and their brotherhood had closed, and however vital his skill in decoration, he had no ease in self–promotion. In other times his talent and reputation might have carried him without anxiety for the rest of his life, yet already in the forties of the century and his own middle-fifties his successes, both European and American, were all in the past and apparently behind him, and he was living obscurely in a mortgaged cottage in the foothill suburbs, with no prospects ahead. Apprehension about money became chronic, and also there was the crucial matter of ill health. In spite of his tall appearance of well-being, Kay was not strong and Ulla, since no one dares be sick without plenty of cash, did not mention the fact that she was threatened with diabetes."

''Tell me the way '' she said  ''and then I'll search you out.''

Ulla and Kay tightened their belts, moved into the modest cottage near Flanner, and set about living with as much gentle grace and style as they could muster on a small and dwindling income. It was then that Flanner first met the couple -- astonished to find that her neighbor was the very artist whose books she had most treasured in her childhood.

"As I came to know him," Flanner writes, "he appeared to be the model of his tall heroes, and like them seemed puritanic, as much monk as painter, never quite coming out of the hieratic forest....Asked today what they recall most about him people invariably answer, 'He never said an unkind word about anyone.' "

East of the Sun, West of the Moon illustrated by Kay Nielsen

Despite their financial worries, the Nielsen house was a warm and lively place, filled with friends, art, conversation, and the distinctively Danish customs with which they kept their homeland close. It was also filled with baby chicks, for the couple attempted to breed and raise Cornish game hens to supplement their income -- but after a while this business failed too. And still Kay's art didn't sell.

 In 1941, good fortune came in the form of Jasmine Britton, supervising librarian for the Los Angeles school system. Distressed to find an artist of Nielsen's caliber living in genteel poverty, she pulled some strings and located funds with which to hire him to create a full-scale mural for the library of the Los Angeles Central Junior High School. It was a vast undertaking, a painting on which the artist spent three long years of hard work. When the mural was finally completed, it was ceremoniously unveiled to enormous acclaim; Arthur Miller called it "one of the most beautiful wall paintings in America" in the L.A. Times. One year later, the school building was taken over by the Los Angeles Board of Education for a new administrative headquarters, and the mural was stripped from the wall as the room was converted to offices.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon illustrated by Kay Nielsen

Enraged, Jasmine Britton threatened the School Board with a well-publicized public scandal. They agreed to transfer the mural, and a new home was found for it at Sutter Junior High School in the San Fernando Valley -- but the enormous painting had been badly damaged in the course of its careless removal and storage. A further two years of work was required to restore the art in its new setting -- a blow from which Kay's health, fragile at that time, never fully recovered. When the restorations were complete, he went on to a new commission -- a splendid altar painting for the Wong Chapel in the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. After this, however, it was six long years before he received another commission.

In the late 1940s, lacking all prospect of work, the Nielsens returned to Denmark, though life there was to be quite different from what they had known before. Where Kay had once been a celebrity, followed everywhere by the media, now he was aging, his work was obscure, and their country house, though charming, was also rustic and bitterly cold. Kay spent dark winter days wrapped in blankets, attempting to paint, as his health grew worse.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon illustrated by Kay Nielsen

By the 1950s, the Nielsens were back in the cottage in California once more -- where good fortune appeared once again in the form of another Britton sister, Helen Britton Holland, who arranged for Kay to receive a mural commission from Whitman College. It was the last major painting he would ever complete -- for over the next several years his cough worsened, his frame grew thinner and thinner, and in 1957 he died quietly at home at the age of sixty-nine. Ulla made no pretense of wanting to go on with life now that her Kay was gone, and she died just thirteen months later of complications from diabetes. Neither knew that a revival of Kay's life work was soon about to begin.

Illustration by Kay Nielson

In the 1960s and 1970s, Kay's fairy tale paintings were rediscovered as part of a general cultural reappraisal of Victorian fairy art, Pre-Raphaelite art, and Golden Age book illustration. In the latter group, Nielsen's work was ranked once again alongside Rackham's and Dulac's as the finest of the age. In America and England, Kay's pictures appeared on notecards, posters, and calendars, and facsimile editions of his various fairy tale volumes soon followed after. In the 1970s, Peacock Press, under the visionary direction of Ian and Betty Ballantine (who were instrumental in popularizing Tolkien's books in America) presented a series of trade paperback volumes honoring the works of Golden Age illustrators. Kay Nielsen, edited by David Larkin, was published in 1975, followed up by The Unknown Paintings of Kay Nielsen (featuring the artist's Arabian Nights paintings) in 1977.

Since then, Kay's work has become beloved by fans of fairy tale fiction and illustration all around the world, and a new generation of mythic artists are now as inspired by the art of Kay Nielsen as he was once inspired by Beardsley.

The art of Kay Nielsen

"Though naturally conversant with the historic advances of painting in the twentieth century," writes Hildegarde Flanner, "he remained aloof from the times in his work. Excelling in the lyrical and poetical was the ideal that absorbed him and he made no effort to modernize the subject-matter that had governed his style."

Today, we can only be grateful for the artist's devotion to "the lyrical and poetical." He maintained his own unique vision to the end, leaving his wondrous pictures as gifts to the future. I hope somewhere that his spirit, and Ulla's, knows just how much we treasure them now.

Before long the troll fell asleep and was snoring

The paintings above are from East of the Sun, West of the Moon, illustrated by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957).


The Visionary Art of Marja Lee Kruÿt

Marja Lee Kruÿt

Marja Lee Kruÿt was born and raised in the Netherlands in the province of Drenthe: a beautiful, dolmen-studded region in the northeast of the country, near the German border. She spent five years studying fashion illustration design in Amsterdam, and at the age of twenty she embarked on a professional career as a fashion illustrator. In 1964, Marja moved to London, where she created fashion drawings for major stores in England and abroad, as well as for newspapers and magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. She was also involved in the ballet — both as a dancer and as a costumer for various productions -- and she made clothes for a Plimlico boutique that catered to the likes of Marianne Faithful, Mick Jagger, Pete Townsend, and Brian Jones. (Faithful was often photographed during those years in a cape Marja designed for her.)

Marja Lee KruÿtWhile she was living in London, in a flat above Quentin Crisp's, Marja met her future husband, Alan Lee, a talented book illustrator. In 1975, the couple moved to a rural village at the edge of Dartmoor, sharing a house with their friend and fellow-artist, Brian Froud.

Brian Sanders described the house in 1977 (in the book The Land of Froud):  "From the outside the house is a modest Victorian cottage set back from the street in a tangled garden. From the moment that one crosses the threshold, guarded by a moss and lichen jewelled hand pointing skywards, from amid a welter of muddy wellington boots, a different land begins. Two families, the Lees and the Frouds, live here: the real Lee children side-by-side with Brian's family, the Troll King, his brother, and their mother. The mother has a hand in her back, and when Brian holds her they become one. The puppet fits to him and there is a deep affection between them: Brian the wizard surrounded by his animate creations, discussing them with a child who believes in them as much as he does. Walls, shelves and floors are crowded with books, toys, found objects and constructions. Ghosts, faeries and pictures of goblins abound." (It was during these years that Alan and Brian produced their now-classic art book, Faeries.)

Meanwhile, Marja continued to pursue her London-based illustration career until her children were born, but afterwards (like so many other women artists of her generation) her fashion work was set aside while she raised her children, and provided admin support for her husband's busy career. Yet even during those years focused on running a household, her creative powers did not lie dormant. She created costumes for local theatrical productions, and for figures sculpted by doll-artist Wendy Froud; she drew portraits, designed hats and clothes, and studied the Celtic harp...all while excelling in the area Grace Nuth has dubbed domythic art: bringing myth, magic, and romantism into every aspect of domestic life.

 Marja Lee Kruÿt

In 1998, her children grown, a new chapter in her life began when Marja returned to the studio. The work she produced was astonishing: drawings and paintings with a rich maturity of vision that had been quietly brewing over all those years, emerging like dreams, straight from the subconscious, each one a treasure of mythic art.

Marja Lee Kruÿt

"I've always been interested in dreams," she says. "And in myth, mysticism, and symbolism. Through the use of color, of line, of the symbolic nature of garments, objects, patterns, and flowers, I attempt to create pictures that work on many different levels: marrying our everyday reality with other planes of dream and intuition. Painting, to me, is soul work, healing work. It's a kind of meditation."

Marja Lee Kruyt

Her creative practice is a spiritual one, craft and technique in service to spiritual intent.

"I begin each picture with a ceremony," she explains, "opening myself to the picture's theme and asking to be given the symbols with which to represent that theme. It's important to stay wide open as I work, to let the images come through me, unforced, shapes and colors emerging intuitively. It's a slow, deep, painstaking process, and a single picture can take me several months -- working out the composition and colors by doing many drawings and watercolor sketches first. Each part of the picture must be right; each element has an individual meaning, yet must also be woven into the rest of the design. I often use Celtic patterns, for instance, which represent the way things weave together in life -- and the way that our lives in the here-and-now are woven with other dimensions of consciousness.

Marja Lee Kruÿt

 "Flowers, animals, stones -- all these pictorial elements must work as part of the painting's composition, but have symbolic meanings as well. The specific flow and movement of a garment, for instance, can represent different aspects of spiritual awareness. I draw upon Celtic symbols ... Eastern symbols ... Steiner colour theory ... Perelandra essences ... mandalas ... whatever the picture calls for. Watercolor is a fluid medium and I strive to work with, not against, the flow. That may sound airy-fairy but it's not, really; watercolor is a medium that requires technical precision too. In art, as in life, we must be grounded and free-flowing, intuitive, all at once. I suppose making pictures in this way, like any spiritual practice, is really all about balance."

Marja Lee Kruÿt

"My background in fashion illustration is probably evident in my paintings, as well as my love of music and harps. I also like painting children, representing that childlike part within each of us. And fairies. Living here on Dartmoor, fairies were bound to turn up in my pictures!

"I have always loved the Victorian 'fairy painters' and book illustrators, such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac, as well as the Pre-Raphaelites: William Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti. But the artists who have influenced me the most are Gustav Klimt, Sulamith Wülfing, and the Renaissance painters Sandro Botticelli and Benezzo Gozzoli -- particularly the angels. Wülfing's influence is probably the most apparent. I feel an affinity with her. She drew angels even as a little girl, often talking about her angels and guides, and was influenced by Krishnamurti, the White Brotherhood, and the Theosophical Society. She was a mystic, really, and expressed her mysticism through her art. There are things that we can portray through pictures and symbols that we can't convey as easily through words. Art can speak directly to the soul. Wülfing's best pictures do this -- as do some of the great religious pictures from the Renaissance.

Marja Lee Kruÿt

"I think art can be healing, moving, enlightening. It can also be puzzling, disturbing, or even upsetting...and sometimes that is necessary. It wakes you up. When you live with a picture, when you keep looking at it and taking it into yourself over a period of time, it can change you: moving you from one way of thinking to another, from one level of consciousness to the next. I like pictures that make you keep on looking, that reveal themselves and their meanings slowly. Art that keeps on giving you more, and a little more, every time you look."

Painting studio

Marja works from an exquisite painting studio at the back of a "secret garden," tucked away at the end of a path behind the old stone building where she lives. It is from here she does her "soul work," weaving painting and spiritual practices into a life lived on many levels at once. She creates magic on each one of those levels, and trails beauty behind wherever she goes.

Marja Lee Kruÿt

Marja at Kelmscott Manor

Photograph: Marja Lee Kruÿt at Kelmscott Manor (William Morris' country house in the Cotswolds), 2017. For a post about our trip up to Kelmscott, go here. For folklore of the harp, go here.

The paintings and drawings above are under copright by Marja Lee Kruyt, and may not be reproduced without her permission; all rights are reserved by the artist. The title of each artwork can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) The Brian Sanders quote is from The Land of Froud (Peacock Press/Bantam Books, 1977).


The Mythic Art of Alan Lee

Young Arthur and Merlin by Alan Lee

"I have a very clear memory of my first encounter with myth," Alan Lee recalls, "sitting in a mobile library and travelling, at the same time, with Theseus on the road to Athens. By the time we'd met and disposed of the pine-bending giant Sinis, I'd become completely entranced. Within a few months I'd read every book on myths, legends, and folklore in our two nearest libraries."

The young boy entranced by ancient tales never lost his taste for magic and myth, and grew up to become one of the finest book illustrators of our time. His distinctively elegant watercolor paintings -- adorning Greek myths, Arthurian legends, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and other magical  tales -- have earned him a world-wide following, the prestigious Kate Greenaway Award, museum and gallery exhibitions around the globe, and the deep respect of fellow artists and writers in the publishing field. Like Arthur Rackham or Edmund Dulac from Britain's Golden Age of illustration, Alan's work imbues imaginary landscapes with such startling reality one can almost step inside the paintings to travel beyond the visible horizon. Walking into his Devon studio, filled to the brim with paintings and books, is to cross a portal into the Otherworld of a master artist's vision, a place where stories come to life in pencil strokes and washes of color.

Merlin Dreams by Alan Lee

Alan was born in Middlesex in 1947, and decided at a young age that art would be his life's vocation. After training at Ealing School of Art he became a freelance illustrator, working in the fields of book publishing, advertising, and film. During these early years, his London work space was shared with a number of other artists -- including Brian Froud, a painter also drawn to myths and legends. These two friends teamed up to create Faeries, a book exploring the rich tradition of faery lore in the British isles, reaching past the modern image of the creatures (sweet little sprites with butterfly wings) to capture the faeries of the old oral tales: earthy, wild, mysterious, and capricious as a force of nature. Published in 1978, this ground-breaking book became an international bestseller, and an influential text for a whole generation of artists, writers, and film-makers to come.

The Faery Ring by Alan Lee

A swarm of fairies by Alan Lee

Just prior to the creation of Faeries, Alan, his family, and Brian moved from London to rural Devon, settling in a small village at the edge of Dartmoor. The mossy woods, wild hedgerows, and mythic grandeur of the moor had a strong effect on Alan's work: he is, in truth, a landscape artist as much as he is an illustrator, creating imagery born from the lines, textures, colors, and forms of the natural world. Dartmoor proved to be the perfect setting for an artist of Alan's temperament: a land of great and varied beauty, rich in history and myth, full of Bronze Age ruins, clapper bridges, and standing stones on the wind-swept hills.

Merlin by Alan Lee

In Arthurian lore, Merlin (the great magician of Arthur's court) retreats to the Forest of Celydonn after the Battle of Arderydd, living an elemental existence alongside the wolves and the deer. It is only after this retreat into nature that he comes fully into his magical powers -- an initiatory process echoed in myth cycles throughout the world. For Alan, the move to Devon was his own retreat into Celydonn. Wandering over the moor, through Wistman's Wood, and up winding paths by the River Teign, he came into his full powers as an artist, a magician upon the page.

The success of Faeries allowed him the time to pursue a project dear to his heart: paintings inspired by The Mabinogion, the great myth cycle of Wales. These magnificent tales are firmly rooted in the soil of the Welsh countryside, so he followed the threads of the stories to Dyfed and Snowdonia, soaking in the colors, forms, and spirit of these myth-haunted landscapes. Returning to his Devon studio with reference photos and sketchbook notes, Alan created a body of extraordinary paintings to accompany the Jones & Jones translation of the text. This edition of The Mabinogion, published in 1982, remains one of the artist's finest accomplishments to date.

From the Mabinogion, illustrated by Alan Lee

The Mabinogion by Alan Lee

Over the next several years, he continued to chose book projects with mythic resonance, such as Castles: a book of imagery drawn from myth, romance, and magical literature, with text by David Day; Merlin's Dream: Arthurian tales beautifully retold by Peter Dickinson; and two children's picture books: The Mirrorstone, with text by Michel Palin, and The Moon's Revenge, with text by Joan Aiken.

During these years he also pursued his second career as a concept artist and designer for feature films, working on such fantasy classics as Legend, directed by Ridley Scott, and Erik the Viking, directed by Terry Jones.*

From the Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

In 1988, Alan was approached by J.R.R. Tolkien's publisher to create fifty new paintings for The Lord of the Rings, to be published in a handsome edition celebrating the centenary of Tolkien's birth. He immersed himself in this work for two years, resulting in illustrations so perfect, and so universally acclaimed, that they are now ineluctably bound with Tolkien's great story for readers all over the world.

"I first encountered  The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was eighteen," he remembers. "It felt as though Tolkien had taken every element I'd ever want in a story and woven them into one huge, seamless narrative. And, even more important for me, he had created a place -- a vast, beautiful, awesome landscape -- which lingered in the mind long after the protagonists had finished their battles and gone their separate ways."

The Hobbit, Alan Lee

How, I ask, does an artist even begin to approach a project like this? Particularly when illustrating a text that has meant so much to so many.

"Humbly," Alan says promptly. Then he pauses to give the question more thought. "Every artist works differently, of course, but my own approach to The Lord of the Rings was to allow the landscapes to predominate. In some of my scenes, the characters are so small they are barely discernible. This helped me to avoid, as much as possible, interfering with the pictures in the reader's mind, which tend to focus on the characters and their inter-relationships. My task lay in shadowing the heroes as they traveled on their epic quest -- often at something of a distance, coming closer at times of heightened emotion -- rather than simply re-creating the dramatic highpoints of the story. Later, when I illustrated The Hobbit, it no longer seemed appropriate to keep such a distance, particularly from the hero himself. I don't think I've ever seen a drawing of a hobbit which quite convinces me -- and I don't know whether I've gotten any closer to Tolkien's vision myself with my depiction of Bilbo. I'm fairly happy with my picture of him standing outside his home, Bag End, before Gandalf arrives and turns his world upside-down -- but I've come to the conclusion that one of the reasons Hobbits are so quiet and elusive is to avoid the prying eyes of illustrators."

Bilbo Outside Bag End by Alan Lee

In 1992, Alan began a journey into a very different kind of landscape when he agreed to illustrate The Illiad and The Odyssey, re-told for young readers by Rosemary Sutcliff. He'd loved these stories since childhood, and yet he hesitated before taking on the books.

"I was apprehensive," he explains, "about spending so much time on the battle plains of Troy when my natural home, and main source of inspiration, was the woods and sodden hills of Dartmoor. I'd rarely attempted to paint a landscape that wasn't at least as wet as the watercolors I worked in. I travelled to Greece, for the first time, with a copy of Pausanias as a guide, weighed down by paints, sketchpads, and camera. Most of the action takes place in Turkey, not Greece, but I'd heard that there wasn't a lot to see at the site of Troy itself, so I thought Mycenae would be a good substitute. I visited all the sites and museums I could, drawing artifacts and large crowds of Greek school children. I fell in love with all the Korai at the Acropolis; and, best of all, I went to Delphi. It had nothing to do with the story I was illustrating, but it's set in one of the most remarkable and beautiful landscapes I've ever seen."

Alan Lee

Alan describes his research process as a way of "priming the pump," filling himself with ideas and images before he actually sits down to work. Though his painting process is an intuitive one, it is nonethless grounded in the real. Armed with hundreds of reference photos, sketchbooks filled with notes, and the visual impressions of his travels through Greece, he returned to his Devon studio to create a magical Greece that never was: half-way between myth and history, between Homer's world and the realm of the gods. The landscape, as always, came first -- and then he recruited family, friends, and neighbors to model for the extended dramatis personae of the tales. (I recall coming into his courtyard at the time to find a dying Odysseus laid out on the picnic table, Penelope swooning above him.)

Sadly, Rosemary Sutcliff died before the art was completed, and never saw her words brought so vividly to life in The Black Ships of Troy (winner of the Kate Greenaway Gold Medal) and The Wanderings of Oysseus.

The Wanderings of Odysseus

At the end of the 1990s, Alan traveled to Wellington, New Zealand to begin work as Conceptual Designer of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy; and in 2004, he won an Academy Award for his role in translating Middle-earth to the big screen. For many years we didn't see much of him as labour on the films went on and on, followed by Jackson's two Hobbit films. But when they were done, and he finally came home, our small village felt suddenly 'right' again. His quietly presence had been deeply missed.

The Wanderer  illustrated by Alan LeeOther film jobs followed, but Alan managed to keep up with the book world too -- illustrating Tolkien's posthumous publications (The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien, etc.), as well as Shapeshifters: Tales from Ovid's Metamorphoses (retold by Adrian Mitchell) and The Wanderer (a splendid Folio Society edition of Old-English poetry). In between book and film projects, you'd often find him rambling the moor or sketching trees in the local woods: rendering the land he loved best in paintings, drawings, and etchings. 

"I spend as much time as I can sketching from nature," he explains. "Dartmoor contains such a rich variety of landscape -- as many boulders, foaming rivers, and twisted trees as my heart could ever desire. When I look into a river, I feel I could spend a whole lifetime painting that river, from source to sea, and nothing else."

A Dartmoor river by Alan Lee

Alan works from a two-floor studio in an old stone barn half-smothered in ivy and roses. It's a magical place, with a silvery light and a sense of calm and tranquility -- despite an overflow of papers and books, and perpetual deadlines looming. In the large upstairs room, the walls are covered with etchings, drawings, and printers' proofs; the shelves hold rows of black sketchbooks filled with drawings, whimsical doodles, and notes; and the drawers are packed with paintings created through decades of steady work. Downstairs, an etching press sits among paintings boxed-up to ship to exhibitions. Across a courtyard is a second barn, newly renovated and largely empty -- a space adaptable for music, or dance, or solitary contemplation, whatever the moment might call for.

An illustration from The Hobbit by Alan Lee

Sketchbook drawings by Alan Lee

We sit in the cobbled courtyard now, tea, scones, and jam on the table before us. The white roses are in bloom, and music drifts down from an upper window.

"I like working in watercolor," Alan tells me," with as little under-drawing as I can get away with. I like the unpredictability of a medium which is affected as much by humidity, gravity, the way that heavier particles in the wash settle into the undulations of the paper surface, as by whatever I wish to do with it. In other mediums you are more in control, responsible for every mark on the page -- but with watercolor you are in a dialogue with the paint. It responds to you, and you respond to it in turn. It's a conversation. Printmaking also has this quality, this unpredictable element -- requiring an intuitive response, encouraging a spontaneity that allows the magic to happen.

"When I begin an illustration, I usually work up from small sketches -- which indicate, in a simple way, something of the atmosphere or the dynamics of the picture. Then I do drawings on a larger scale, supported by life studies from models if figures play a large part in the composition. When I've reached the stage where the drawing looks good enough, I'll transfer it to watercolor paper -- but the drawing is still fairly loosely rendered. I like to leave as much unresolved as possible before starting to put on washes of color. This allows for an interaction with the medium itself, a dialogue between me and the paint. Otherwise it's too much like painting by number, or a one-sided conversation."

An illustration for The Hobbit by Alan Lee

I know so many young artists who look up to Alan, so I ask him which artists he looked up to himself in his youth. He answers readily:

"I was strongly influenced, in technique as well as subject matter, by the early 20th century book illustrators -- Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac in particular. And by Burne-Jones and other Pre-Raphaelites. Also by the various artists of the Arts-&-Crafts movement in England and Scotland. Going further back, I'm continually inspired by Rembrandt, Breughel (I've often wondered whether his brilliant "Tower of Babel" inspired Tolkien's description of Minas Tyrith), Hieronymous Bosch, and Albrecht Durer. It's not that these earlier artists have influenced my pictures in any obvious way, but that their example raises my spirits, and re-affirms my belief in the power of images to move and delight us. They show me how much further I have to go, and how much is possible."

We'd been in Florence and Venice together with a group of friends, so I bring up the Italian Renaissance painters and Alan's face lights up.

"I'd always liked the Italian masters," he says, "but now I'm completely besotted with Botticelli, Bellini, da Vinci, and the rest. To see their work in its natural landscape and light is a revelation. The paintings are calm, controlled, and yet each face, each form, each hill or flower or tree contains such passion. In Botticelli's paintings, every pebble and every leaf is rendered with a religious devotion. There's a reverence inherent in paying such close attention to every stone...turning painting itself into a form of worship, an act of prayer. I'm still thinking about it, still working through what effect this may have on my own approach to drawing and painting."

From the Mabinogion

I ask whether he, too, sees painting as an act of communication with something beyond our human ken: God, Mystery, call it what you will.

"Yes," he answers slowly, "but perhaps in a more mythological sense than the religious orientation of the Renaissance. To draw a tree, to pay such close attention to every aspect of a tree, is indeed an act of reverence -- not only toward the tree, but toward our human connection to the tree, and to nature. It is one of the magical things about drawing: it gives us almost visionary moments of connectedness. Every element (hair, wind, rocks, water) is portrayed with one material (graphite, ink, paint) which binds it all together, bringing out the harmony that we know, and science confirms, exists in nature -- created as it is, as we all are, by particles that have existed since the dawn of the universe.

'This is the power of myth as well: it binds to the natural world. There have always been mythic tales of figures whose function is to act as an intermediary between humanity and nature: the shaman, the shape-shifter, the trickster, the embodiments of creative power,  appearing in myths, fairy tales, and medieval legends all around the world. Often they have a touch of 'divine madness' -- like Merlin, or Shuibhne in Ireland, during their years of exile and madness in the woods, through which they gained their divinatory powers. It's interesting to me that in our century it is often artists who fulfill this function. And who, in popular stereotype, are given the license to be a bit mad. Look at Picasso, a classic trickster figure if there ever was one.

Detail from a drawing by Alan Lee

"The power of both myth and art," he continues, "is this magical ability to open doors and to make connections -- not only between us and the natural world, but between us and the rest of humanity. Myths show us what we have in common with every other human being, no matter what culture we come from, no matter what century we live in. And at the same time, mythic stories and art celebrate our essential differences.

"When I first encountered Greek myths as a child, the stories provoked a degree of excitement that can't be explained by their value as adventures, however great that may be. Although the stories were new to me, I felt a sense of recognition.  My response to them, in particular to the otherworldly elements, suggests they were meeting a spiritual need that had not been touched by dull lectures at school, or the church services I regularly dozed through. I'm not suggesting that I wanted to sacrifice a bull to Zeus or consult a Sybil -- I didn't known any Sybils -- but that I'd found, unconsciously, a wider and deeper context for my hopes and fears. Myth gave me a sense of continuity and communion with the people of different times and cultures, and an enhanced and more imaginative relationship with the natural world."

The Tower of Annowre by Alan Lee

The intersection of myth and art can indeed produce a form of magic connecting us to the numinous world -- and this is evident in the timeless beauty of Alan's illustrations of classic tales. The wandering paths of Middle Earth, the great green valleys of ancient Wales, the vistas over the plains of Troy, and twisted trees of the Devon woods all create a spell as potent and lasting as any conjured by Merlin himself.

Yet the quiet magician behind the paintings seems unaware of the power of the magic he creates with pencil, pen and brush.

"I keep drawing the trees, the rocks, the river," he says. "I'm still learning how to see them. I'm still discovering how to render their forms. I will spend a lifetime doing that. Maybe someday I'll get it right."

Alan Lee in his studio

Gormenghast by Alan Lee

Drawing by Alan Lee

The paintings, drawings, sculptures, & photographs above are under copright by Alan Lee, and may not be reproduced without his permission; all rights are reserved by the artist. The pictures are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


The Faerie Art of Brian & Wendy Froud

Twilight by Brian Froud

For those here and on social media who mentioned how much they loved Brian Froud's art in yesterday's post, here's a closer look at his work, which is deeply entwined with that of his wife Wendy Froud, a sculptor, puppet designer, and doll artist. They live close by here on Dartmoor, are old friends and colleagues, and I love them dearly.

The Froud family's thatch-roof farmhouse sits buried in ivy down a quiet country lane in England's West Country. Its old front door, with a goblin door-knocker, is a doorway into Faerieland. Inside is the kind of enchanted house one usually finds only in fantasy books: full of carved medieval furniture and tapestries, costumes, masks, old books, puppets and magical props from films. Faeries, goblins, trolls and sprites stare down from Brian's paintings on the walls, and cavort in the shape of magical dolls and sculptures created by Wendy.

The Faery & the Troll by Wendy Froud

Brian was born in Hampshire, raised Kent, and studied at the Maidstone College of Art. His deep involvement with folklore and myth began during his student days, he says, when he came across a book illustrated by Arthur Rackham in his college library. Rackham's goblins, faeries, undines, and tree folk re-awakening Brian's interest in the myths and legends he'd loved in childhood. He began to study the folklore of Britain, and then the tales of other lands, fascinated by the ways the magical traditions in all cultures shared common roots. When he left collage, Brian spent five years in London working in the field of commercial illustration, but he continued to paint mythic images and to develop a distinctive style of his own. (This early work was published in Once Upon a Time and The Land of Froud, both from David Larkin's Peacock Press.)

In 1975, Brian moved from London to Dartmoor, sharing a house with fellow-illustrator Alan Lee and his family. Inspired by the woods and hedgerows of Devon, and the ancient, myth-steeped landscape of the moor, the two collaborated on Faeries, an illustrated book of British faery lore. This marvelous, ground-breaking volume quickly became an international bestseller, and has influenced artists, writers, and folklorists all around the world in the decades since.

Two paintings from ''The Land of Froud''

Faery sketches by Brian Froud

Brian's faeries and magical vision of the world so impressed the American filmmaker Jim Henson (creator of the Muppets) that he asked Brian to come to New York to design two feature films: The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Like Faeries, the films were ground-breaking -- pioneering new puppet design and performance techniques. It was on the set of The Dark Crystal that Brian met Wendy, who created the "gelflings" and other creatures for the film. (In the photo below the two of them are at work in the Dark Crystal workshop.)

Brian & Wendy in the Henson workshop

Wise Woman and Gelfling by Wendy Froud

Wendy was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. "Both of my parents were artists," she says. "I've been a doll-maker all of my life. At about age five, as soon as I could bend a pipe-cleaner and bits of fabric together, I started to make the kind of dolls I couldn't find in stores: centaurs, satyrs, fauns, unicorns, and faeries. I wanted to be part of a magical realm, and so I created one for myself." 

Faeries by Wendy Froud

Wendy studied music and drama at Interlochen Arts Academy, then fabric design, jewelry, and ceramics at The Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. After graduation, she moved to New York City and landed a job which drew all her training together: working as a sculptor and puppet fabricator in Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Wendy worked on a number of different Henson projects, making puppets for The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie, and the original prototype for Yoda in Star Wars. It was on the set of The Dark Crystal, however, with its imagery rooted in folklore and myth, that she found her greatest satisfaction, working with the shy-but-brilliant English faery artist at the heart of the film.

She married Brian during the filming of The Dark Crystal, was pregnant when work on Labyrinth began, and soon after gave birth to Toby, their son. The timing was co-incidental, but perfect. Toby ended up with a role in the film: playing the baby stolen by the Goblin King (David Bowie) and rescued by his sister (Jennifer Connelly).

David Bowie & Toby Froud in Labyrinth

After the films were done, the Froud family returned to Brian's village on Dartmoor. Rather than squeezing into his old cottage, a tiny place in the center of the village, they renovated a rambling Devon "longhouse" out in the countryside: a thatched granite building dating from medieval times, built over older Saxon foundations. In this atmospheric place, they set about creating a thoroughly magical environment filled with faeries, goblins, trolls, William Morris fabrics, antique toys, and shelves crowded with folklore texts. Brian set up a painting studio in a large room to one side of the house's central hall, while Wendy created two work spaces: a doll workshop in the eaves of the house, and a sculpting studio in the garden.

Come Here by Brian Froud

Although the Frouds never left film work altogether, during the years when Toby was young they chose to live more quietly in Devon, concentrating on creating art inspired by myths, legends, and fairy tales.

While Brian painted faeries and goblins, Wendy brought these same creatures to life in three-dimensional form, made of fimo, plaster, resin, cloth, feathers, leaves, and numerous other things -- mixing traditional art materials with found objects from the Devon woods. Some of Wendy's art is based on, or in dialogue with, Brian's paintings and sketches, while the rest explores a rich visual vocabulary that is uniquely her own.

Woodland faery by Wendy Froud

Pan by Wendy Froud

Brian has largely concentrated on what could be called "faery portraiture," building a large, wide-ranging body of work informed by the colors, shapes, and textures of the land around him. "I've been actively engaged with mythic imagery ever since I picked up that Rackham book," he says, "but it really came into focus for me when I moved from London to Dartmoor. As I walked through the woods and over the moor, I looked at the trees and the rocks and the hills and I could see the personality in those forms, metamorphosing into faeries, goblins, trolls, and other nature spirits.

"After Alan and I published Faeries, he moved on from folklore to illustrate Tolkien and other literary works -- but I discovered that my own exploration of the Faerie Realm had only just begun. The faeries kept insisting on taking form under my pencil, emerging on the page before me, cloaked in archetypal shapes drawn from nature and myth. I'd attracted their attention, and they hadn't finished with me yet.

The Faery Who Was Kissed by the Piskies by Brian Froud

"I'm often called a 'fantasy' painter, " Brian notes, "but that's not quite accurate. My imagery comes from myth, folklore and the old oral story-telling tradition, not from fantasy literature; and although I did some commercial illustration in my youth, I don't see myself as an illustrator now. I publish books, but the paintings in them are personal visions and expressions, not illustrations of someone else's story. The pictures come first, and the text responds to the pictures, not the other way around. I have to confess that, unlike Wendy, I rarely read fiction at all. Most of my reading is nonfiction: history, mythology, archetypal psychology, and the like. I prefer the enchantment of a story told to one that is written down. In the oral tradition, where stories are told around the fireplace in semi-darkness, the words are alive: they leave the lips, enter into the air, and before they fall onto your ear they transform themselves into magic. They're not fixed; they change from telling to telling, and from listener to listener.

The Lady & the Unicorn and The King's Knight by Brian Froud

"I want my pictures to have that same quality of mutability. I don't like things to be fixed too solidly or explained too fully; I want each viewing to be like a re-telling of a tale, full of new possibilities. Back in my illustration days, I worked on a book called The Wind Between the Stars, and that was an interesting technical challenge, for how does one draw the wind? The work I do today still has that sort of challenge: drawing things that are normally beyond human perception, turning the invisible world of Faerie into visible form. Myth surrounds us every day, particularly in a landscape as soaked in history and old stories as Dartmoor. If I do my job well, not only does myth become visible within a painting, but that painting becomes a doorway into a new way of looking at the world. You turn and look at the land around you, and you begin to see the faces in the trees and faeries flitting through the shadows."

Faeries and piskies by Brian Froud

It is clear that his work gives Brian great satisfaction, but I've also seen him struggle with his art. What, I ask, is the most difficult thing about rendering his vision of the world and its magical spirit in paint?

Brian ponders the question, then answers slowly, "The hardest part -- or one of the hardest parts, because there are many hard parts -- is convincing the viewer that what I've depicted is true; that I've got it right. When Cocteau was making his classic film Beauty & the Beast, he was reaching for what he called 'the supernatural within realism' -- in other words, grounding fantastical elements with ordinary imagery, which gives plausibility to the first and enchantment to the second. I think this is important to mythic art no matter what the medium: painting, writing, filmmaking. You need realism as an underpinning, an anchor, for the magic.

The Owl Faery by Brian Froud

"In order to obtain the 'supernatural within realism,' I usually start my larger, complex paintings with a human image," he explains. "The familiarity of the human form provides a touchstone and a reference; and then as we continue on in our journey around the picture, encountering stranger and stranger imagery, we have confidence that these faeries look just as they're supposed to look. We know that the distortions in their forms or faces are deliberate, not just a stylistic aberration or bad drawing. Every distortion in my paintings actually has a precise meaning behind it. In traditional lore, one often finds that faeries have some striking defect of form: some are hollow-backed or elongated, others have goat- or lion-feet. Heads, hands, and feet are often large in proportion to the rest of the body. This is due to the plastic nature of faery forms, which are often glimpsed in states of transition from one shape to the next.

Sketchbook drawings Brian Froud

"I start each painting by drawing a geometrical grid based on the Golden Section, a system of proportions and perspective developed by the ancient Greeks. The grid is overlaid with circles, triangles and the like, and where these things cross over is where I place the major figures. This gives the 'chaos' of a crowded painting an underlying structure of order. The central human figure is generally based on a photograph -- again, this provides an  Woodling by Brian Froudunderpinning of reality for the more fantastical aspects. I take my own photographs of models: friends and neighbors generally. The imagery surrounding the central figure is always in relationship to it. These secondary creatures are often drawn from earlier sketches -- I have many, many sketchbooks filled with such things.

"I always try to keep the drawing fairly loose; I don't like to get tight at this stage, which closes down possibilities. And even in the final stages of a painting I strive to maintain a looseness and a sense of...mystery. I find that in the fantasy genre, too many young painters over-paint their pictures; they're a bit too...over-wrought for my taste. They're much too bright and shiny. The artist has finished every detail, and every edge is hard and bright -- which doesn't allow me into their world, my eye slides right off that shiny surface. I prefer to keep my rendering as loose as possible, just on the edge of being finished. I want a painting to give just enough information for the picture to make sense; there should always be a little bit kept back, a few pieces missing, which the viewer must supply himself. In doing that, the picture comes to life. It becomes part of a reciprocal process, a communication. The painting allows you inside, where it can grow, and you can grow."

Wood Woman by Brian Froud

Despite the world-wide success of Faeries, and the huge acclaim he received for the Henson films, it often astonishes Brian's fans to know that it took him over ten years to find a publisher for his subsequent work.

"There were times when I thought I was mad to continue painting faeries," he recalls. "But I was driven to do it. I had a vision and I couldn't seem to let it go. So I said to myself: What do I have to do to convince a publisher that there's an audience for this art? I decided a humorous approach might open the door; it might perhaps be less intimidating. That's when the idea for Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book came to mind."

A ''pressed fairy'' by Brian Froud

This volume tells the story a Victorian young lady who "presses" fairies between book pages, much as her compatriots pressed and collected flowers. With art by Brian and text by Terry Jones (of Monthy Python fame), the book is utterly hilarious...and, like Faeries, it was a best-seller. To Brian's relief he had finally proved there was indeed an audience for his art.

More books in the Cottington series followed: Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Letters, Lady Cottington's Fairy Album, Strange Staines & Mysterious Smells, and, most recently, The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington. The latest volume was written by Wendy, as fine an author as she is a sculptor, telling the story of this mad, faery-hunting family from Victorian times to the present. (Go here to see the book trailer video, by Toby Froud. Artist Virginia Lee plays Angelica Cottington, the original fairy hunter in the family, and my husband, Howard, plays her twin brother Quentin, a mad inventor.)

Angelica & Madeline Cottington

The success of the "pressed fairies" allowed Brian to publish his other paintings of the Faerie Realm, collected in books such as Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, The Runes of Elfland, and Brian Froud's World of Faerie, a sumptuous overview of his art. Although less whimsical than the Cottington series, these volumes also have their humorous side. "Just like the old faery lore," he notes, "moving back and forth between between light and shadow."

Meanwhile, Wendy was creating art for exhibition, teaching, writing, and publishing magical books of her own: the Old Oak Wood series for children  (A Midsummer Night's Faery Tale, The Winter, The Faeries of Spring Cottage), and The Art of Wendy Froud.

Behind the scenes, she was also involved with Brian's publications, sometimes editing or ghost-writing the text. This evolved into full collaboration between the two artists in Trolls and Faeries' Tales, gorgeous editions designed by Brian, written by Wendy, and featuring art by both.

Trolls by Brian Froud

Three sculptures by Wendy Froud

Troll by Wendy Froud

More recently,  the two of them had a busy year going back and forth to a film studio near Windsor to work on The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance, a tour-de-force of the puppetry art. Their son Toby, all grown up and a film puppeteer and director himself, was the Design Supervisor for The Age of Resistance, making sure the aesthetic vision of the original film was faithfully translated to the new series.

Since then, other television and stage projects have been afoot, slowed down by the Covid-19 pandemic but still moving forward. Brian and Wendy spent the months of lockdown at home on Dartmoor, enjoying a rare pause in their lives and engaged, as always, with the land, its spirits, and the stories in the world around them.

The Dark Crystal television series

As our discussion ends, Brian sits back and reflects on his long journey with the faeries:

"After all these years of drawing, painting, and sculpting them, Wendy and I are often asked if we 'believe' in faeries. The best answer I can give is that I don't have much of a choice in whether I believe in them or not, for they seem to insist on my painting them. I paint by intuition, and faeries keep appearing on the page before me. Mind you, it's not that I lie around on a chaise longue waiting for inspiration to strike -- painting is a discipline and I'm in my studio working a regular work day from 9 to 5. But on a Monday morning I'm often not sure what exactly I'm going to be doing next. I'll get out my tools, I'll get to work, and something will demand to come through -- some creature will form on the page before me, demanding to say: Hello!"

Light Faery by Brian Froud

"Faeries are spirits of nature," notes Wendy. "They embody the wild, mysterious and spiritual forces to be found in nature, and help us to reconnect with wonder and mystery inside our own souls. Our ancestors passed these stories and images down for hundreds, thousands of years. As artists, Brian and I are merely part of a long tradition -- giving old tales new life and passing them on to the generations to come. I look at my sculptures as signposts or gateways into the realm of Faerie. I like to think that they can help people find their own way into that realm."

Faery by Wendy Froud

"Traditional cultures have always recognized and honored the animate spirits of the earth," Brian adds, "but in western culture we've rather left that behind...to our spiritual cost, and ecological peril. Now we're beginning to recognize how important it is to have a vibrant relationship with the land beneath our feet...and that the old stories and mythic imagery can aid this process."

"In other words," says Wendy with a smile, "we need the faeries, especially now. So Brian and I will keep telling their stories, for as long as they want us to."

Wendy & Brian Froud

Green Woman by Brian Froud

The paintings, drawings, sculptures, & photographs above are under copright by Brian & Wendy Froud, and may not be reproduced without their permission; all rights are reserved by the artists. The title of each artwork can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Once upon a time in Paris...

Dawn the Golden-Haired

Happy International Women's Day! We've been looking at women in myth, folklore, and fantasy in the last few posts. Today is dedicated to the fairy tale writers of the French salons, with illustrations by French book artist Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981)....

The term "fairy tale," now used throughout the English-speaking world as a generic label for magical stories for children, was a term coined in the literary salons of 17th century Paris by a group of writers who wrote and published their tales for adult readers. These stories have come down to us through the years in simplified forms adapted for children: Cinderella, RapunzelBluebeard, Sleeping Beauty, Donkeysin, and many others. They have their roots deep in the oral folk tradition, but they are not anonymous folk tales themselves -- they are literary works by a group of French authors, primarily women, who have exerted a strong influence on fairy tale literature up to the present.

Grace and Derek by Adrienne SegurTo explore this group and their influence, first we need to distinguish between the oral folk tales and literary fairy tales of western Europe. Magical folk tales, of course, have been part of the storytelling tradition since the dawn of time -- including stories of fairies, sorcerers, witches, and human folk under enchantment. Folk tales are humbler stories than the great cosmological myth cycles or long heroic Romances, and as such have been passed through the generations largely by the lower caste portions of society: women, peasants, slaves, and outcast groups such as Tinkers and Travellers. The literary fairy tale, by contrast, began as an art form of the upper classes -- made possible by advances in printing methods and rising literacy. Literary fairy tales borrow heavily from the oral folk tales of the peasant tradition (as well from myth, Romance, and literary sources like Apuleius’ Golden Ass), but these motifs are crafted and reworked through a single author’s imagination.

The Tinderbox by Adrienne SegurAlthough we find magical elements in medieval literature (in Boccaccio’s Decameron, for instance, or Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales), 16th century Italy is where the fairy tale became a genre of its own with the publication of Giovan Francesco Straparola’s Le piacevoli notti (The Pleasant Nights, 1550-53) and Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone, also known as Lo cunto de li cunti (The Story of Stories, 1534-36). Both authors acknowledged that their source material came from women storytellers, yet Straparola and Basile were not scholarly collectors intent on preserving the oral folk tradition; they were writers who filtered the oral tales through an educated sensibility, turning them into literary works intended for adult readers. Both authors embedded short fairy tales into a larger frame story (ala the Decameron), a narrative technique that was to become a staple of fairy tale literature. Between them, Le piacevoli notti and Il Pentamerone contain some of the earliest written renditions of many classic tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Puss-in-Boots, among others. Yet these stories were somewhat different than the fairy tales we know today. Sleeping Beauty, for instance, was not wakened by a kiss, but by the suckling of the twins that she gave birth to after the prince has come, made love to her sleeping body, and left again. The tales were sensual, dark, bawdy, and never intended for children’s ears. Straparola, in fact, had to legally defend his volume against charges of indency.

Sleeping Beauty by Adrienne Segur

In the 17th century, Italian interest in magical stories waned -- but the tales of Straparola and, particularly, Basile went on to influence a new generation of writers in Paris. Prior to the 17th century, French folk tales were considered the “vulgar” province of the peasantry, although members of the upper-classes often knew such tales via nurses and servants. In the middle of the century, however, a vogue for magical tales emerged in the women’s salons of Paris. The salons were regular gatherings hosted by prominent aristocratic women, where women and men could gather to discuss the issues of the day. At court, contact between men and women was socially constrained and ritualized; and many topics of conversation were considered inappropriate for well-bred ladies. In the 1630s, disaffected women began to host gatherings in their own homes in order to discuss the topics of their choice: arts and letters, politics (carefully, for the Sun King’s spies were everywhere), and social matters of immediate concern to the women of their class: marriage, love, financial and physical independence, and access to education. This was a time when women were barred from schools and universities; when arranged marriages were the norm, divorce virtually unheard of, birth control methods primitive, and death by childbirth common. These women, and the sympathetic men who were increasingly attracted to their lively gatherings, came to be called précieuses, for they perfected a witty, inventive, précieux mode of conversation (rather like the bon mots popular in the Aesthetic movement of Oscar Wilde’s day).

Finn the Keen Falcon by Adrienne SegurSome of the most gifted women writers of the period came out of these early salons (such as Madeleine de Scudéry and Madame de Lafayette), which encouraged women’s independence and pushed against the gender barriers that circumscribed their lives. The salonnières argued particularly for love, tendresse, and intellectual compatibility between the sexes, opposing the system of arranged marriages in which, at its worst, women of their class were basically sold off to the highest bidder. They railed against a culture that permitted men to take lovers while demanding women remain faithful to men they’d never wanted to marry in the first place. They sought to control their own money, and property, and to travel without chaperones. Most of all, they wanted the opportunity to exercise their intelligence and talents. Encouraged by their success in the salons, women began to write fiction, poetry and plays in unprecedented numbers -- and to earn a living through this work which enabled them to remain unmarried or to establish separate households. The salons became quite influential -- fashions grew out of them, artistic ideas, and even political movements; they also provided a network for women struggling to achieve independence.

In the middle of the 17th century, a passion for conversational parlor games based on the plots of old folk tales swept through the salons. The telling of folk tales was an art that had long historical associations with women – yet the use that these bluestocking women made of such tales was new and subversive. Each salonnière would be called upon to retell an old tale or rework an old theme, spinning them into clever new stories that not only showcased verbal agility and imagination, but also slyly commented on the conditions of aristocratic life. Great emphasis was placed on a mode of delivery that seemed natural and spontaneous -- but in fact people devised and practiced their stories before they trotted them out in public, and a style emerged that was both archly sophisticated and faux-naif.

Donkeyskin by Adrienne SegurToday, the salon fairy tales may seem quaintly old-fashioned, dripping with too many pearls and jewels, but to 17th century audiences the rich rococo language of the tales seemed deliciously rebellious -- in deliberate contrast with the mannered restraint of works approved by the French Academy (from which women were barred). In the Academy, in the "Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns," Boileau, Racine and other literary men insisted that French literature should strive to emulate the classical works of Greek and Rome, while the Moderns (Charles Perrault among them) believed that the home-grown source material of French folklore and myth could inspire a vigorous new literature, free of antiquated rules. (Stories of ogres in seven league boots were the true inheritors of the Homeric tradition, Perrault argued, not odes composed in Latin.) The king eventually ruled in favor of the Ancients, but Modern literary experimentation continued to go on with popular if not critical support -- particularly in the world of the salons, where women writers often had no choice but to boldly take up the Modern cause. Largely self-educated, few of them could read and write in Latin.

Bluecrest by Adrienne Segur

The rococo language of the fairy tales also served another important function: disguising the subversive subtext of the stories and sliding them past the court censors. Critiques of court life, and even of the king, were embedded in flowery utopian tales and in dark, sharply dystopian ones. Not surprisingly, the tales by women often featured young but clever aristocratic girls whose lives were controlled by the arbitrary whims of fathers, kings, and elderly wicked fairies – as well as tales in which groups of wise fairies stepped in and put all to rights.

Fairies were central to these stories, and it was here that the name contes des fées (fairy tales) was coined -- a term now used to describe a large, international body of magical tales. The fairies populating the salon tales were not quite the same as the earthy creatures to be found in the oral folk tradition, however. They shared some of the same characteristics (they wielded magic and granted wishes; they could be good or evil, helpful or capricious), yet these fairies were clearly aristocrats, intelligent, erudite, and independent, ruling over kingdoms and presiding over the workings of justice and fate -- just as intelligent, independent women ruled over the world of the salons. In short, these fairies can be seen as representing the women writers who created them.

The Royal Ram by Adrienne SegurAs the vogue for fairy stories evolved in the 1670s and ‘80s, Madame d’Aulnoy emerged as one of the most popular raconteurs in Paris, famed for her tales and for the glittering circle she drew to the salon she hosted. Eventually she wrote down her tales (The White Cat, The White Deer, Green Snake, Bluecrest and The Royal Ram, among others), publishing them to great acclaim from 1690 onward -- beginning with a fairy tale embedded in her novel L’Histoire d’Hypolite, comte de Duglas. Soon after, other salonnières began to publish fairy tales of their own, including Marie-Jeanne L’H’éritier and Catherine Bernard beginning in 1695, Charles Perrault and Comtesse de Murat in 1696, Rose de La Force in 1697, Chevalier de Mailly and Jean de Préchac in 1698, Catherine Durand in 1699, and Comtesse D’Auneuil in 1701.

Madame d’Aulnoy’s own history is just as fantastical as any of her stories. Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville was born in Normandy in 1650, and received a modest convent education -- arranged for her by Francois de la Motte, Baron d’Aulnoy, a wealthy aristocrat who was thirty years her senior. When Marie-Catherine was 15 or 16, the Baron abducted her from the convent (with the connivance of her father, who profited financially) and a forced marriage ensued -- from which, in that time and place, there was no possibility of divorce. The Baron was famed for his dissolute habits, including drunkenness, an addiction to gambling, and sexual irregularities. Three long years later, it looked as though the girl might be freed from her odious husband when the Baron was arrested and charged with a crime of high treason against the king. Then the two men who had implicated the Baron recanted their testimony under torture. These men were discovered to be the lovers of the young Baroness and her beautiful mother, and it was now believed that the whole affair had been cooked up between the four of them. The Baron was released, the men were executed, and d’Aulnoy and her mother fled to Spain. The two adventurous women spent the next several years traveling the Continent, and may have been spying for Louis XIV as a way of regaining his favor. Baroness d’Aulnoy received royal permission to return to Paris in 1685, where she promptly set up her literary salon in the rue San-benoit. Intelligent, beautiful, and tinged with an aura of mystery, she soon formed a glittering group around her of nonconformist women and men, as well as establishing a highly successful and profitable literary career.

The White Deer by Adrienne SegurHenriette-Julie de Castelnau, Comtesse de Murat, was part of the d’Aulnoy circle -- and another writer of magical tales with a colorful history. Born in Brittany in 1670, she came to Paris at the age of 16 upon her marriage to the Comte de Murat, quickly making a name in the salons for her wit and insouciance. Her high spirits landed her in trouble when a tale she wrote was recognized as a thinly veiled satire of the king’s mistress; she was subsequently denounced by her husband for wild behavior, immodesty, and rumors of lesbianism. Banished by the king to the provincial town of Loche at the age of 24, de Murat constantly petitioned to be released from this sentence, to no avail. She was kept confined to a Loche chateau for all but one year of the rest of her life -- returning to Paris only when King Louis died, just before her own death.

Yet even in confinement, de Murat managed to maintain close contact with her women friends, and continued to play an active role in the Parisian fairy tale movement. She wrote and published a large number of novels and stories, and set up her own literary salon (dubbed the Académie du domicile) -- recreating the atmosphere of Paris in Loche and scandalizing the town. Her best known tales include Bearskin, in which a young king falls in love with a princess-in-exile disguised as a big brown bear. The bear wins the young man’s heart through the elegance of her conversation and the erudition of her beautiful letters and poems. Unlike Disney-style fairy tales today, where a beautiful face is a girl’s main attraction (think of Disney's Cinderella, or the film Pretty Woman), this king falls in love before he discovers the royal maiden inside the gentle bear -- in fact, he agonizes over his unnatural attraction to the animal and is greatly relieved when a fairy finally assures him that his beloved is actually human.

Kip the Enchanted Cat by Adrienne Segur

Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier, by contrast to the authors above, was able to lead a more self-determined life -- partly because she was born into a family of scholars who saw nothing untoward in her desire to be a writer, and partly because she followed the example of her mentor, the writer and salonnière Madeleine de Scudéry, by refusing all offers of marriage. (A wealthy woman’s patronage and the income from her writing made this possible.) Charles Perrault was her uncle, as well as her colleague in the world of the salons; she was also close to de Murat, to whom she dedicated her first major collection of tales. She inherited de Scudéry’s famous salon upon her mentor’s death, and ran it with great success as her own literary reputation grew.

Scholars are now divided on whether L’Héritier (an early champion of fairy tale themes) influenced Perrault or whether it was Perrault who influenced his niece. It hardly matters, for in all likelihood the two of them influenced each other -- they were friends, they moved in the same social circles, they wrote fairy tales during the same stretch of years, and they drew their themes from a common stock of oral folk tales, as well as from Basile. L’Héritier is best remembered for The Discreet Princess -- a wry and charming tale in which a king locks his three daughters away in order to safeguard their chastity. An evil prince from a nearby kingdom manages to trick his way into the tower, and then to seduce and impregnate each of the foolish older princesses. The youngest, Finette, is a clever girl, and more than a match for the honey-tongued prince. “Once this devious prince had locked up her sisters,” writes L’Héritier, “he went in search of Finette in her room, which she had locked against him. He spoke the same compliments at her door that he had used with each of her sisters, but this princess was not so easy to dupe, and did not respond….The wicked prince lost his patience. Fetching a large wooden log, he broke the door in. He found Finette armed with a large hammer, her eyes glittering with rage. ‘Prince,’ she said, ‘if you approach me, then I shall split open your skull!’” In the end, the prince is outwitted, killed in a trap he has laid for Finette, and she marries the prince’s gentle brother, the new heir to the neighboring kingdom.

Riquet of the Tuft (aka Cowlick Rickety) by Adrienne SegurCatherine Bernard, born in Rouen in 1662, moved to Paris in order to become a writer, where she frequented d’Aulnoy’s and L’Héritier’s salons and became part of the fairy tale circle. Bernard resisted marriage and devoted herself to her literary career, writing well-received novels and tragedies known to have influenced Voltaire. As a fantasist, she’s best known for her version of an oral folk tale called Riquet of the Tuft, published around the same time as Perrault’s rendition of the story. Both versions are good ones, and thus it’s interesting to compare the two, demonstrating the differences in tales by men and women of the period. In Perrault’s charming retelling, a beautiful princess is cursed with stupidity by a malevolent fairy and then encounters Riquet of the Tuft, a courteous but ugly prince who gives her the gift of intelligence in exchange for her promise to marry him in one year’s time. During that year, the now-dazzling princess entirely forgets her benefactor…until she encounters him once again on the day she had promised to wed him. She attempts to weasel out of the promise, using all her new-found cleverness – until he assures her that it is quite within her power to make him as beautiful as herself, provided she agrees to love him. She does so, Riquet changes shape, and now he’s as handsome as he is courteous. Perrault then ends the tale with the suggestion that Riquet may have not changed his shape after all, but merely appeared to be beautiful to the princess once her love was pledged.

Green Snake by Adrienne Segur

Catherine Bernard’s version of the old folk tale is a considerably darker one, and takes a dimmer view of her heroine’s prospects for happiness. The lovely but stupid princess encounters Riquet, an ugly and bossy little gnome, ruler of a wealthy gnome kingdom in a realm deep underground. He gives the girl a spell to chant that will render her intelligent, and only then does he inform her that she has no choice but to marry him in one year’s time. (This echoed the experience of upper class girls whose limited convent educations were subsidized by older men who had arranged to marry them when they were grown.)  The princess soon grows witty and charming, suitors flock to court her, and she loses her heart to a handsome youth who has no power or wealth. Secretly, she ponders the dreadful fate that is awaiting her, and the day finally comes when she must give herself to the horrid gnome. Her deep distaste for the marriage is so obvious that Riquet presents her with a choice: she can marry him of her own free will and retain her new intelligence, or she can return to her father’s house as stupid as she was before she met him. Loathe to give up her intelligence, and fearful of losing her young lover’s regard, she chooses the lesser evil and marries Riquet of the Tuft.

The tale continues after the marriage, in Riquet’s kingdom under the ground. Angered by his wife’s continued aversion, the gnome avoids her company -- and she concocts a plan to bring her lover to the palace. Her plan succeeds, and for a time she revels in stolen happiness…but the sudden bloom in her cheeks awakens her gnome-husband’s suspicions. After various machinations, Riquet discovers his wife’s secret, and he takes ingenious revenge by turning her young lover into a replica of himself. "Thus," writes Bernard, "she lived with two husbands instead of one and could no longer distinguish between them, living in fear of mistaking the object of her hatred for the object of her love." Whereas Perrault’s version ends with a moral ("We find that what we love is wondrous fair."), Bernard’s version ends with a warning: "In the end, lovers turn into husbands anyway."

Little Red Cap by Adrienne Segur

A number of Modern, nonconformist men frequented the women’s fairy tale salons, contributing stories of their own as part of the conversational games. Foremost among them are Jean de Mailly, author of Les Illustres Fées, contes galans; Jean de Préchac, author of Contes moins contes que les autres; and Charles Perrault, author of the most famous of all French fairy tale collections: Histoires ou contes du temps passé, also known as Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (The Stories of Mother Goose).

Sleeping Beauty by Adrienne SegurPerrault was born Paris in 1628 to a distinguished family of high-achievers: his father was an accomplished lawyer and a member of the Paris Parlement, and his four brothers forged glittering careers in the areas of theology, architecture, and law. Perrault became a lawyer himself after passing examinations at the University of Orleans, but he gave it up to become a court administrator three years later. As secretary to Jean Baptiste Colbert, the Sun King’s powerful finance minister, he was able to wield his influence in support of culture and the arts. (He was one of the men in charge of the design of the Louvre and Versailles, for instance.) He published poetry, essays, and panegyrics for the king, and was elected to the French Academy in 1671, where he was one of the leading initiators of the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns (arguing for the latter). In the 1690s, like his niece and other habitués of the Paris salons, Perrault turned his attention to fairy tales -- producing three poems with folklore themes, a prose version of Sleeping Beauty, and then his Histoires ou contes du temps passé in 1697.

Perrault turned the blunt language and earthy imagery of peasant folk stories into tales that were urbane, aristocratic, and refined, yet contain some marked differences from those of the female salonnières. First, the literary style he adopted was a simpler one, his plots less complex, his language less rococo as he played with the narrative conceit that the tales come direct from the mouth of Old Mother Goose. Second, despite his salon friendships with out-spoken, independent women, the princesses in Perrault’s tales tend to be passive, helpless creatures, praised for their beauty, modesty, and quiet obedience. His princes stride off to seek their fortunes, outwitting ogres and hacking through briars, while the princesses sleep or sit in the ashes, virtuously awaiting rescue. Compare Bluebeard’s wife, lying prostrate before him in tears while her brothers ride in to save the day, with clever Finette, in The Discreet Princess created by Perrault’s niece L’Héritier, waving her hammer at the prince and shouting: "Come closer and I’ll open your skull!"

Two illustrations by Adrienne Segur

Though L’Héritier, d’Aulnoy, and other women enjoyed readerships as large as Perrault’s, the fairy tale form was still suspect among the leading critics of the day, who reserved their praise for the simpler, less subversive tales penned by Perrault. In 1699, Abbé de Villiers published a Dialogue commending Perrault while damning all women fairy tale writers, railing in particular against the popularity and financial success those writers enjoyed. "Most women only enjoy reading because they enjoy laziness and the trivial,” de Villiers declared. “Everything that requires a little effort tires and bores them; they amuse themselves with a book in the same way they play with a fly or a ribbon. So does it astonish you that tales and little stories are popular?" In the years to come, Rosseau would also write scathingly of women’s fairy tales, and of the very idea of women's salons. "Every woman in Paris gathers in her apartment a harem of men more womanish than she," he sneered, while strongly advocating the establishment of English-style clubs exclusively for men.

He needn’t have worried. The social and literary ground that the women salonnières had gained was already slipping away from them as the 18th century dawned. One by one, their salons closed as the salonnières died or were banished from Paris. Perrault died in 1703, d’Aulnoy in 1705, Bernard in 1712, de Mailly was in trouble with the king, de Murat was still under house-arrest in Loche, and de la Force had been banished to a convent for publishing “impious” works. As the Marquise de Lambert lamented years later: "There were, in an earlier time, houses where women were allowed to talk and think, where muses joined the society of the graces. The Hôtel de Rambouillet [a famous salon], greatly honored in the past century, has become the ridicule of ours."

Three illustrations by Adrienne Segur

The Wild Swans by Adrienne Segur

As the salons ended, a "second wave" of French fairy tale literature began, consisting of stories, primarily by men this time, that were parodies of the earlier tales, as well a host of magical stories with an Oriental flavor. (The latter was due to Antoine Gallard’s phenomenally successful translation of The Thousand and One Nights, 1704-1714, which introduced Arabian fairy tales to the French reading public.) By the middle of the 18th century, however, a "third wave" of French fairy tales emerged by writers who had more in common with the 17th century salonnières than with the parodists who succeeded them. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, for example, was associated with the parodists (she’s believed to have been the mistress of Claude-Prosper de Crébillon fils) but used the fairy tale form in a manner that harked back to the 1690s, penning stories that explored the role of women in marriage and society. In her youth, de Villeneuve had been unhappily married to a military officer, turning to writing to earn a living when his death left her impoverished. Her best known fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast (1740), a long, complex, and subtly erotic story exploring issues of love, marriage, and identity. (The tale was later shortened by Madame Leprince de Beaumont, which is the version we know best today. For the interesting history of Beauty and the Beast, go here.)

Another writer who picked up the threads of the salon tradition was Marguerite de Lubert, the author of six acclaimed fairy tale novels and a number of shorter works, best known today for La Princesse Camion (1743) and Peau d’ours (1953). Like L’Héritier and Bernard before her, de Lubert studiously avoided marriage in order to pursue a literary career. Her tales have a light and sparkling surface, in keeping with the tastes of the time, but underneath lies a firm foundation of narrative sophistication. Her stories, like the salon tales, revolved around courtly, powerful fairies -- but de Lubert seems to have been more ambivalent about the nature of that power, portrayed in a manner that ranges from benevolent to meddlesome to downright sadistic.

Beauty and the Beast by Adrienne Segur

While the 17th century salon writers had composed their tales for adult readers, in the latter half of the 18th century fairy tales were increasingly aimed at younger readers. Creating a separate body of fiction for children was a relatively new notion, engendered by new printing methods and the rise of literacy in the upper classes. Prior works for children were dull and didactic, intended to inculcate moral values. It now occurred to liberal-minded parents and children’s educators that these values would be easier to swallow if sugar-coated with entertainment.

Madame Leprince de Beaumont was one of the first French writers to compose fairy tales specifically for younger readers. Having fled from a disastrous marriage to a dissolute libertine, Leprince de Beaumont worked as a governess in England, where she began to write stories, in French, for magazines aimed at “young misses”. Although a number of her fairy stories contain original elements, she also borrowed liberally from previous fairy tale writers. In 1757, she re-wrote the text of de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast, severely condensing the narrative and imbuing it with clear moral lessons. De Villenueve’s original text, over three hundred pages long, is thick with incidental characters and rambling subplots; Leprince de Beaumont stripped these away to reach the bare, timeless essentials of the tale, condensing de Villenueve’s narrative into a mere seventeen pages. She also made some significant changes. First, she toned down the eroticism: in the de Villeneuve version, the Beast repeatedly asks Belle to go to bed with him, while in the Leprince de Beaumont version, he merely asks her to marry him. Second, Leprince de Beaumont’s Beast is sympathetic, even attractive, before his transformation -- while in de Villenueve’s story (similar to “animal bridegroom” tales from the oral tradition) the Beast is a genuinely frightening character.

The White Cat by Adrienne Segur

Leprince de Beaumont was not alone in re-writing tales by earlier authors, or in turning them into stories that were simpler, shorter, and less challenging. Throughout the 18th century, the tales of d’Aulnoy, Perrault, de Murat, L’Héritier, Bernard, de la Force and the other salonnières appeared in the pages of the Bilbliotheque bleue, a series of small, inexpensive chapbooks distributed by traveling book peddlers. Intended for readers of the lower classes, these shorter tales proved enormously popular and were often read aloud -- and thus began to slip into the oral folk tradition, not only in France but in neighboring lands. It is because of this that so many readers think of literary tales like Donkeyskin, White Cat or Beauty and the Beast as "anonymous" folk tales to this day.

The Rose of Christmas by Adrienne Segur

Fortunately, the salon tales as they were originally written and published have been preserved for us in a monumental work called Le Cabinet des fées, an enormous collection of stories from the 17t and 18th centuries. First published in three volumes in Amsterdam in 1731, it swelled to an astonishing forty-one volumes, published in Paris and Amsterdam (and then Geneva) beginning in 1785. These volumes contain a treasure-trove of stories, the vast majority of them by women authors.

So how, we might ask, did Perrault become known as the only French fairy tale author of note? Elizabeth W. Harries addresses the question in her essay "Fairy Tales About Fairy Tales: Notes on Canon Formation." Aside from the gender bias, too obvious to need any explication, she points out that the next generation of fairy tale enthusiasts were men like the Brothers Grimm: fairy tale “collectors,” not literary artists, who prized a simple, "peasant" style of prose, and were deeply suspicious not only of the subversive subtext of the salon tales, but of the very language used by the women and men of the précieux movement. (One can only wonder what they’d have made of Angela Carter today!) Although Perrault’s tales were modern literary creations like those of the other salonnières, he adopted a simpler prose style than that of his "inferior imitators," as the Grimms referred to d’Aulnoy and de Murat in the Introduction to their first collection (Kinder und Hausmärchen, 1812). The Grimms, writes Harries, "had to posit a rupture or separation between literate and oral culture, between modern, self-conscious writing and older, ‘natural,’ spontaneous story-telling or ballad-singing. Their nostalgia for a vanishing or vanished culture -- assumed to be simpler or more poetic than their own -- still permeates most fairy-tale collecting and research."

Cinderella by Adrienne Segur

In the decades and centuries that followed, the salon stories, except for Perrault’s, were reprinted less and less -- or they appeared in bowdlerized form, with erroneous or missing author credits. "Tales by d’Aulnoy and Murat," writes Harries, "were no longer considered authentic or moral enough to reproduce -- or even to be mentioned, except in parentheses." By the 19th century, children’s books had become a thriving industry, and the French salon tales continued to be plundered as a cheap source of story material. The tales were shortened, simplified, and given a gloss of Victorian propriety -- and then often published under the name of that anonymous, illiterate peasant woman known only as Mother Goose, while the real women behind the 17th and 18th century contes des fées were slowly disappearing.

Yet those pioneering, scandalous, précieux women and men were not entirely forgotten. During the last two decades of the 20th century, their history began to be reclaimed by a new generation of fairy tale scholars, at the same time that their tales were being rediscovered, reappraised, and retranslated. Such tales provided inspiration for a whole new wave of fairy tale authors: Angela Carter, Anne Sexton, A.S. Byatt, Emma Donoghue, Margaret Atwood, Alice Hoffman, Kate Bernheimer, Tanith Lee, Jane Yolen, Delia Sherman, Kate Forsyth, Robin McKinley, Francesca Lia Block, and Donna Jo Napoli among them.

Bright, Dear Deer, and Kit by Adrienne Segur

The Golden Book of Fairy Tales

A number of women writers of my generation were raised, as I was, on the French salon stories in The Fairy Tale Book (Golden Books, 1958), translated into English by poet Marie Ponsot and illustrated by Adrienne Ségur, whose imagery adorns this post. That single book cast a spell on us that has lasted right up to this day, resulting in careers spent studying, writing, illustrating, and editing fairy tales, or fairy-tale-inspired literature.

I have written elsewhere about the particular importance of fairy tales in my own childhood, growing up in a troubled household, and how the quests in magic tales can prepare us for the quests we face in life. What I didn’t know as a girl was how very lucky I was to have that particular book as my introduction -- containing, as it did, stories shortened for young readers but not overly revised, rather than the sugary Disney-style versions best known today. I also didn’t know that those tales connected me -- a working-class girl in 20th century America -- with a group of strong-minded aristocratic women in 17th century Paris, who had struggled, as I was struggling, against societal expectations for an education, independence, and a self-determined life. The subversive message of their tales was buried deep in rococo imagery of fairies, princesses, diamonds and pearls…and yet I heard it. I learned at a very young age not to sit in the cinders awaiting rescue. I picked up a hammer (metaphorically speaking!) and set off to seek my fortune instead.

Adrienne Segur cover art

I like to think that d’Aulnoy and her friends would be pleased to know that the “fad” they started is still going strong more than three centuries later. And perhaps in another three hundred years Jane Yolen’s tales, or Patricia McKillip’s, or Theodora Goss's, will be read alongside d’Aulnoy’s and Perrault’s, to inspire new generations.

Thumbelina by Adrienne Segur

The artwork above is by Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981), most of it reprinted from The Golden Book of Fairy Tales. All rights to the text and art reserved by the author and the artist's estate.