Monday, February 27, 2012

Wanda Gág's Tales from Grimm

As a children's author and illustrator who grew up listening to relatives reading her old world fairy tales and who could speak German herself, Wanda Gág was ideally, almost uniquely suited for the task of of translating, editing and illustrating collections of the Brothers Grimm's tales.

Two such volumes exist. The first was 1936's Tales From Grimm, in which the renowned author collected 16 different Grimm's fairy tales to freely translate into English and illustrate.

In her introduction, she explains the genesis of the project:

The magic of Märchen is among my earliest recollections. The dictionary definitions—tale, fable, legend—are all inadequate when I think of my little German Märchenbuch and what it held for me. Often, usually at twilight, some grown up would say, "Sit down, Wanda-chen, and I'll read you a Märchen." Then, as I settled down in my rocker, ready to abandon myself with the utmost credulity to whatever I might hear, everything was changed, exalted. A tingling, anything-may-happen feeling flowed over me, and I had the sensation of being about to bite into a big juicy pear.

When, four years ago, I was in the midst of a Hansel and Gretel drawing, the old Märchen magic gripped me again and I felt I could not rest until I had expressed in pictures all that Märchen meant to me.

She read them in their original German, and began by making literal translations of her chosen stories. Finding that some of the stories which seemed so simple and colorful in German turned "think, lifeless and clumsly" when translated literally into English, she decided to try and do a free translation of her own, seeking to preserve the flavor of the originals with her own English words.

Gág discusses her process quite a bit in the introduction to the first volume, why she made the choices she made and how the audience for fairy tales has changed even within her own lifetime.

I can't tell you how good a job she did translating the tales, or how some of her specific translation choices affected the stories, or how they might compare to different choices different storytellers have made over the years. While I've read all 16 of these stories elsewhere, generally in Andrew Lang's "color" anthologies, I think but also in various Grimm-specific collections, I don't know anywhere near enough about the tales to even hazard vague guesses in the direction of criticism of a particular translation or collection. (Not knowing any language but English doesn't help, either).

Among the more popular tales in this volume are "Hansel and Gretel," which leads off the collection just as drawing it set Gág on the path to making the book, "The Musicians of Bremen," "Cinderlla," "Rapunzel," "The Frog Prince" and "The Fisherman and His Wife."

A color illustration of a scene from Rapunzel is used on the cover, and provides a nice example of Gág's plump, young, child heroines and bent, crooked but well-dressed witches, as well as the same sort of dreamy, flowing landscape that was evident in Gág's picture books.

Above the table of contents is this image...It's simple enough in intent and construction, but almost baroque in the amount of swirly little images pouring out of the book at its center. Based on that single image alone, I think Gág succeeded in conveying through a drawing what reading her childhood book of fairy tales must have felt like.

There are a half-dozen full-page illustrations in the first book, and each story begins with a title page, bearing the name of the individual tale and a design-like image to suggest what will follow.

Here are a few from this volume: Smaller illustrations appear throughout the text of each story, and most will begin with an image similar in shape to the one above the table-of-contents, resting atop a block of text like a decorative piece.

Here, from the second volume, 1947's More Tales from Grimm, is an example, from "The Hedgehog and The Rabbit": And here are some of the larger illustrations from the first volume, one of Cinderella beneath her magic tree......(remember, this is a collection of tales from Grimm, not tales from Disney)...and here as an illustration from the climax of "Snow White and Rose Red"... My favorite image in this volume is perhaps a little illustration from "Three Brothers."

That is the story of a father with three sons he loves equally. Unable to decide which of them to leave his house to when he dies, he proposes they each choose a trade and go off to learn and master it, and then they would return and "he who has learned his trade best shall have the house."

One of the brothers has become a barber, and to demonstrate his skill,

He took his mug and soap, and quickly whipped up some suds while the rabbit was running toward them. Then, just as the rabbit ran past them at top speed, he lathered the little animal's chin and shaved it, leaving enough fur for a stylish pointed beard. All this time the rabbit had been running as fast as he could, and yet he wasn't cut in any way.

And this is the image that appears beneath that paragraph: I love everything about that picture, from the look on the rabbit's face, to the style of beard he's sporting to the way Gág expressed motion—you'll see speed lines around the bounding and astonished rabbit, as he apparently looks back at the barber who just shaved him while he was running by, but look closely at the rabbit's hindquarters, and you'll see Gág has drawn suggestions of after-images as well.

The second volume is a much bigger one, but a less complete one—there are over 30 tales included, but Gág passed away before it saw print. There's a long forward written by Carl Zigrosser, one of her two "literary and artistic executors" (with her husband Earle Humprheys being the other) explaining that "the text had reached the stage of final revision," and that while there were about 100 drawings to choose from, only about three-quarters were in their "final pen-and-ink form."

They decided that they were passable illustrations, and to proceed with using them. With many, a reader might not be able to see the difference, yet there are several that are exceptionally sketchy by Gág's standards.

Take, for example, this image that appears above the first page of "The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids": This was what Gág's images look like before completion, a sort of final draft. While it's not her best work, it is fascinating to be able to see a sort of in-progress image like this, and to be able to compare it to her other, more finished work.

Even the cover of More Tales has an unfinished, sketchy look—it appears to be an image from "The Star Dollars," in which stars rain down from heaven, becoming silver dollars before they hit the ground. As you can see, the shapes are quite indistinct.

The tales collected herein are probably a bit more obscure than those of the first. "Thorn Rose, The Sleeping Beauty" being the most well-known today, although "The Shoemaker and The Elves," "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and the aforementioned story of the wolf and the seven little goats are probably still fairly well known. One of my personal favorites, "Jorinda and Joringel" is also in here, and I think "The Six Swans" is probably pretty well-known—if not in this exact form, then from other variants.

One of my favorite stories in this collection turned out to be—quite to my own surprise—was "The Mouse, The Bird and the Sausage." I've read this one before, but it didn't really strike me as terribly interesting. An anthropomorphic foodstuff—made from pieces of an animal, no less—living with anthropomorphic animals just never sat well with me, conceptually.

Gág's version opens like this:

Once there was a tiny cottage and in it lived no people, only a mouse, a bird, and a sausage. There they had kept house most joyously together for many years, and had even been able to save some money besides.

Each of the three cottage-mates had a daily task to do: The bird flew out to get wood for the fire, the mouse got water from the brook and set the table, and "the big, fat, jolly sausage cooked the meals.

If you're wondering hos a sausage cooks, well, when it's time for dinner, he gets into the pot and swishes himself a round a little in the soup or vegetables, "so as to salt or flavor them."


But Gág's drawing of the sausage is so charming! The three little friends' idyllic life comes to an end when the bird listens to some gossip from another bird, becomes convinced that the others are taking advantage of it, and so they all switch jobs and, as a result, die horribly.

Gág depicts her sausage moments before his rather predictable death, when he still looks cute and funny......Aw, look at his darling little shoes!

Gág does a similarly strong job in anthropomorphizing the stars of "The Straw, The Coal and The Bean."

Let's look at two more images from More Tales, which illustrate the unique nature of the book's illustrations, given there are some unfinished ones alongside finished ones within.

Here is an image from the climax of "Iron Hans":It's a fairly finished image, but there's still a degree of sketchiness to it, mainly in the shadows in the folds of the characters' clothes, and in the lines of their hair and on the ground they stand upon. It's all there, of course, but the line work isn't as crisp as usual, the image not as bold. I'm not sure how much more Gág had to do here, but it looks like an illustration some 90% or so finished, just missing the final touches.

Earlier in the book is a full-page illustration for "The Six Swans," and while it's a more ambitious image, filling a page and boasting a rather elaborate setting and background for its two characters, one can still see pencil guide lines around the girl and her hair:Note how finished the vegetation looks, too. In this image, the forest seems to be as important a character as the protagonist, and the secondary character who finds her hidden in a tree.

The Grimm's stories are well worth reading wherever you can find them, but obviously I recommend seeking out Gág's versions. There's a folksier, home-ier, more child-like feel to them than those lush, lavish illustrations you'll find in, say, the Lang color fairy collections, and it's interesting to see a writer translating and re-writing them and then illustrating them herself.

Essentially, Gág developed a dream project for herself, went ahead and did it and, in the process, demonstrated some of her greatest strengths...while accentuating the strengths of her source material.


Cathie said...

Thank for posting this-Gag's illustrations look wonderful!

Professor Batty said...

If you haven't already, you simply must get her book of diaries Growing Pains. One the the best artist-coming-of-age books I have ever read.