White Bear King Valemon

“Once when she was in the wood, she set her eyes upon a white bear, who had the very golden wreath she had dreamt of between his paws.”

White Bear King Valemon

In the nineteenth century, after the Brothers Grimm had published their first collection of stories, Asbjørnsen, a teacher, and Moe, a minister, decided to wander around the Norwegian countryside and collect their own set of wonder tales. Indeed, they corresponded with the Grimms, each approving of the other’s work. Both sets of stories have been illustrated by fantastic artists over the years, including the Norwegian artist Theodor Kittlesen and the Danish artist Kay Nielsen (who later worked on Walt Disney’s Fantastia) who have created some especially beautiful pictures for these stories. Indeed, one of these Norwegian tales, “White Bear King Valemon”—as imagined by Kittelsen—adorns the logo of the Norwegian folklore society.

I first encountered this collection of stories when I learned that the American poet Robert Bly was writing a book examining six fairy tales of special importance to him, including “King Valemon.” I was also lucky enough to be asked to remix some old illustrations for this new book. I have included, above, a draft image for publication combining pictures by Kittelsen and Moyr Smith (though the final version differed significantly). As you read the tale of “King Valemon,” as translated by Sir George Webbe Dasent and edited by me, I have also woven in several other illustrations of this tale, though it is somewhat less frequently pictured than it’s Aarne–Thompson-Uther type 425A sibling, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.”

I hope you enjoy the story of the white bear, the young princess, and the troll enchantress.

Norsk folkeminnelag logo

White Bear King Valemon

Illustration by Moyr Smith, 1908

Illustration by Moyr Smith, 1908

Once upon a time there was a king with two daughters who were ugly and evil, but a third who was as fair and soft as the bright day. One night, his third daughter dreamt of a golden wreath so lovely that she couldn’t live without it. She grew sullen and wouldn’t so much as talk due to her grief at not having the wreathe, so the king sent out a pattern based on her dream to goldsmiths far and wide to see if they make the wreath. The goldsmiths worked night and day, but the princess tossed all their wreathes away.

But once when she was in the wood, she set her eyes upon a white bear, who had the very wreath she had dreamt of between his paws and was playing with it. The princess wanted to buy it, but the bear said she could only have it if he could have her. Because she thought life was not worth living without the wreathe, she agreed to be fetched in three days, on Thursday.

When the princess arrived home with the wreathe, everyone was overjoyed that she was happy again. The king thought that it should not be so hard to stop a white bear from taking his daughter, so three days later put his whole army around the castle to turn away the bear. But when the white bear came, no weapon could scratch his hide and he hurled the soldiers left and right so that they lay in piles. Upon seeing this, the kind send out his eldest daughter instead of his youngest, and the white bear took her upon his back and went off. When they had gone quite far, and farther than far, the white bear asked her,

Have you ever sat softer, and have you ever seen clearer?”

“On my mother’s lap I sat softer, and in my father’s hall I saw clearer,” she answered.

“Oh!” said the white bear, “Then you are not the right one,” and he chased her home.

The next Thursday the bear came again, and it went just the same. The army went out, but neither iron nor steel scratched hide, and he mowed them down like grass until the king begged him to stop. The king sent out his next oldest daughter, and the white bear took her on his back and went off. When they had traveled far and farther than far, the white bear asked,

“Have you ever seen clearer, and have you ever sat softer?”

“Yes,” she answered. “In my father’s hall I saw clearer, and on my mother’s lap I sat softer.”

“Oh! Then you are not the right one,” said the white bear, and he chased her home.

On the third Thursday the bear came again, and he attacked the king’s men harder than before. As the king could not let his whole army be slain, he gave the bear his youngest daughter. The bear took her on his back and went far away and farther than far. When they had gone deep, deep, into the woods, he asked her as he had asked the others, whether she had ever sat softer or seen clearer.

Illustration by Theodor Kittelsen, c. 1912

One of several versions of Valemon by Theodor Kittelsen, c. 1912

“No, never!” she said.

“Ah!” he said. “You are the right one.”

They came to a castle so grand that her father’s looked like the poorest place in the world by comparison. The princess was to live there with no responsibility other than seeing that the fire never went out. The bear was away by day, but with her at night in the form of a man. All went well for three years, but every year she had a baby and the bear carried each off as soon as they came into the world. The princess grew bored, and begged to go home to visit her parents. There was no stopping her, but the bear made her give her word that she would listen to her father and not do what her mother wished. So she went home, and when she was alone with her parents and told them how she was treated, her mother wanted to give her a light to take back that she might see what kind of man she was with.

Her father, however, said, “You must not do that, for it will lead to harm and not to gain.”

But however it happened, so it happened, the princess took a bit of a candle-end back with her. The first thing she did on her return, when her bear-by-day was sound asleep, was to light it and illuminate him. He was so lovely that she thought she could never gaze at him enough, but as she held the candle over him a hot drop of tallow dropped on his forehead and he woke up.

“What is this you’ve done?” he said. “Now you have made us both unlucky. There was no more than a month left, and had you lasted it out, I should have been saved and my curse broken. A hag of the trolls has bewitched me to be a white bear by day, but now that you have broken your word I must go marry her.”

King Valemon sleeping

Illustration by Theodor Kittelsen, c. 1902

She wept and lamented, but he had to go. She asked if she could go with him, and he replied, “No, there is no way to do that.” Still, when he set off in his bear-shape, she took hold of his shaggy hide, threw herself upon his back, and held on fast.

Away they went over crags and hills, through brakes and briars, till her clothes were torn off her back. Finally, she was so tired, that she lost her wits and let go. When she came to, she was in a great forest. She set off again, but could not tell where she was going. After a long, long, time she came to a hut with an old woman and a pretty little girl. The princess asked them whether they had seen anything of King Valemon the white bear.

“He passed by here this morning early,” they said. “But he was going so fast that you’ll never be able to catch up.”

The little girl there ran about, playing and clipping the air with a pair of golden scissors. As she clipped, silk and satin flew all about. Where the scissors went, there was never any want of clothes.

“This woman,” she said, “who has to go so far on such difficult paths, may well suffer much. She will need these scissors more than I do to cut out clothes.”

The child begged the older woman to let her hand over the scissors, until at last she agreed.

Away the princess traveled through woods that seemed endless, both day and night, until she came to another hut the next morning. In it there was also an elder woman and a young girl.

“Good day,” said the princess. “Have you seen anything of King Valemon the white bear?”

“Was it you, maybe, who was to have him?” said the old woman.

“Yes, it was!”

“Well, he passed by yesterday, but he went so quickly that you’ll never be able to catch up.”

This little girl played on the floor with a flask that poured out any drink one wished to have.

“This poor woman,” said the girl, “who has to go so far on such difficult paths, may well be thirsty and suffer much. She will need this flask more than I do.”

She asked the old woman if she could give the princess the flask, and the old woman have her permission to do so.

The princess took the flask, thanked them, and set off again through the woods. After travelling all day and through the next night, she came to a third hut with an old woman and a little girl.

“Good day,” said the princess.

“Good day to you,” said the old woman.

“Have you seen anything of King Valemon, the white bear?” asked the princess.

“Maybe it was you who was to have him?” said the old woman.

“Yes, it was!”

“Well, he passed by here the day before yesterday, but he was going so fast that you’ll never be able to catch up.”

This little girl played with a napkin on the floor. When anyone said to it, “Napkin, spread yourself out and be covered with dainty dishes,” it did just that, so where it went there was never any want of a good dinner.

“This poor woman,” said the little girl, “who has to go so far on such difficult paths, may well starve and suffer other ills. She has far more need of this napkin than I do.” She asked if she could give the princess the napkin, and did so.

The princess took the napkin, thanked them, and set off again. She went far and farther than far through the woods and travelled all day and night. The next morning she came to a mountain as steep as a wall, so high and wide that she could see no end to it. At the base of the mountain there was a hut, and as soon as she set foot inside it, she said, “Good day. Do you know if King Valemon the white bear passed this way?”

“Good day to you,” replied the old woman in the hut. “It was you, maybe, who was to have him?”

“Yes, it was!”

“Well, he passed by and went up the mountain three days ago, but nothing else without wings can climb it.”

The hut was full of small children who hung around their mother’s skirts and bawled for food as she put a pot on the fire full of small, round pebbles. The princess asked why the old woman did that, and she explained that they were so poor that they had neither food nor clothing, but when she put the pot on the fire and said, “The apples will be ready soon,” the words dulled the children’s hunger so they were patient a while.

The children crying for food went to the princess’s heart and she brought out the napkin and the flask. After the children were full and happy, she cut them clothes with her golden scissors.

“Well!” said the old woman. “Because you have been so kind and good towards me and my children, it would be a shame if I didn’t try to help you up the mountain. My husband is one of the best smiths in the world. Just lie down and rest till he comes home, and I’ll get him to forge claws for your hands and feet to climb the mountain.”

When the smith came home, he set to work on the claws at once, and the next morning they were ready. The princess had no time to stay, but said, “Thank you,” and left. She clung close to the rock and crept and crawled with the steel claws all that day and through the night. Just as she felt so tired that she could scarcely lift hand or foot and was about to fall down, she arrived at the top. There she found a huge plain, full of tilled fields and meadows. It was bigger and broader, and wider and flatter, than she thought was possible. There was also a castle full of workmen of all kinds, swarming about like ants.

Illustration by Moyr Smith

Illustration by Moyr Smith, 1908

“What is going on here?” wondered the princess.

As it turns out, the old troll hag who had bewitched King Valemon lived there, and in three days she was going to hold her wedding feast with him. The princess asked around whether she could speak with the hag.

Everyone said, “No, that is quite impossible.”

So she sat down under a castle window and began to clip in the air with her golden scissors, till the silks and satins flew about as thick as a snow drift.

When the old hag saw that, she had to buy the golden scissors. “Our tailors can do no good at all,” she said. “We have too many to clothe.”

The princess said, “I will not sell the scissors for any amount of gold, but you can have them if you let me spend the night with King Valemon.”

“Yes!” said the old hag. “But I must see him to sleep and wake him in the morning.”

When he went to bed, the hag gave King Valemon a sleeping draught so that he would not open his eyes no matter how much the princess cried and wept.

The next day the princess went back under the window again, and began pouring from her flask. It frothed like a brook with ale and wine, and it was never empty. When the old hag saw that, she had to have it. “For all our brewing and stilling, we still have too many to find drinks for.”

The princess said, “It is not for sale, but if you let me sleep with King Valemon that night, then you can have it.”

“Well!” said the old hag. “You may well do that, but I must see him to sleep and wake him in the morning.”

So when the king went to bed, the hag gave him another sleeping draught. It went no better for the princess that the first night. He was not able to open his eyes no matter how much the princess bawled and wept.

But a workmen, who worked in a room next to theirs, heard the weeping. The next day he told the king that the princess who could set him free would come at night.

Outside the castle, it went just the same as it had with the napkin as it had with the scissors and flask. When it was dinnertime, the princess took out the napkin and said, “Napkin, spread yourself out and be covered with dainty dishes.” There was suddenly meat enough, and even to spare, for hundreds of men, but the princess sat down to eat by herself.

When the old hag set her eyes on the napkin, she wanted to buy it. “For all the roasting and boiling, it is worth nothing because we have too many mouths to feed.”

But the princess said, “I will not sell it for money, but if you let me sleep with King Valemon this night, you can have it.”

“Well!” said the old hag. “You may well do that, but I must see him to sleep and wake him in the morning.”

Valemon Trapdoor

Illustration by Theodor Kittelsen

As King Valemon was going to bed, she came with the sleeping draught, but this time he did not drink it and only pretended to sleep. The old hag did not trust him, however, and stuck a pin into his arm to see if he was truly asleep. For all his pain, he did not stir a bit, and so the princess was permitted to see him.

Everything was soon set right between them, and if they could get rid of the old hag he would be free. King Valemon had the carpenters make a trapdoor on the bridge over which the bridal train had to pass, and it was custom for the bride and her friends to be at the head of the train.

As they were crossing the bridge, the trapdoor tipped up with the bride and all the other old hags who were her bridesmaids. But King Valemon and the princess, and all the rest of the train, turned back to the castle and took as much gold and as many possessions as they could carry, and set off for his land to hold their real wedding.

On the way, King Valemon picked up the three little girls from the three huts and took them with them, and the princess understood why it was he had taken her babes away: so they might help her find him. And so they drank their bridal ale both stiff and strong.

The collection of Norwegian Tales East of the Sun from Taschen, edited by Noel Daniel, adapts an earlier version of the same book, illustrated by Kay Nielsen, with newly sharp versions of and details from the original watercolors. It is quite beautiful (though it lacks Valemon’s tale), as are all the books in that series. Purchases through the links on the pictures below directly support Mirror Mirrored.

Hans Christian Andersen by Taschen

East Of The Sun by Taschen

Fairy Tales By the Brothers Grimm by Taschen

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By |2018-01-16T15:33:51+00:00January 3rd, 2018|Creative, Design, Illustrations, Wonder Tale Wednesdays, Wonder Tales|

Wonder Tale Travel

As I was wandering along the streets of Austin, Texas, one not-quite-wintry December evening, I ducked into a used bookstore down the way. On a bottom shelf near the back, a large, horizontal book quite falling to pieces caught my eye.

Tales From the Four Winds, art by Otto Nielsen

Tales From the Four Winds, art by Otto Nielsen

As I opened the book, Tales From the Four Winds began:

From the dawn of time, man has watched birds in flight and dreamed of winging his way through space as easily and speedily as they. Not only has he dreamed of it, he has talked of it and woven the theme into the tales he told. The story-teller, far distant forerunner of modern television, knew that he could fascinate his audience and hold it spell-bound whenever in his repertoire he introduced fables about humans that flew. . . . When it was decided that the central theme of the [Scandanavian Airlines System] Calendar for 1959 was to be tales from all corners of the earth, it was only natural that the selected stories should deal with people who flew. . . . In presenting this little anthology we in no [way] claim to have made a truly representative booklet. Our main aim has been to amuse the reader with stories from twelve of the 43 nations served by SAS. We ask you to accept this little booklet in the same spirit and, when you read the stories, to remember that SAS, among many others, has helped make the yearnings of early man come true. Today you, too, may fly. Not only in fancy, but also in fact.

As I continued reading, I was delighted to find stories familiar and new, and amazed by the beautiful artwork accompanying them from the Dutch artist Otto Nielsen (who very much loved to travel). I would like to share illustrations from a few of the stories here.

Astride A Cannonball, Germany

Astride A Cannonball, Germany

The Wild Geese, Sweden

The Wild Geese, Sweden

The Moon Princess, Japan

The Moon Princess, Japan

The Flying Trunk, Denmark

The Flying Trunk, Denmark

Lue and the Elephant Hunters, Kenya

Lue and the Elephant Hunters, Kenya

The Magic Carpet, Arabia

The Magic Carpet, Arabia

Gulliver's Escape, Great Britain

Gulliver’s Escape, Great Britain

A Visit from St. Nicholas, USA

A Visit from St. Nicholas, USA

The book, after traveling from Kenya to Brazil, across Europe and Japan, finally arrived at the United States of America, where it closed, seasonably, with “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

But as I put down this beautiful collection, I couldn’t help but think the editors only got it half right. Man has dreamed not just of flying, but of traveling to new places, unseen and only imagined. The Wright Brothers flew in 1903; J.M. Barrie’s first stage production of Peter Pan was in 1904. As much as we have delighted in being able to fly around our own world, and even just beyond it (as in these amazing NASA travel posters), we continue to be thrilled by the prospect of going to places yet unseen.

To that end, I have scoured the internet for travel posters of imaginary lands, both old and new. Middle Earth is a favorite subject of illustrators far and wide, but Harry Potter’s world, Game of Thrones’ Westeros, Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, and, indeed, Peter Pan’s NeverLand, all capture our imagination as faraway destinations. Please enjoy the works of the fantastic designers below and investigate more of what they do through the links to their sites. And, finally, very happy holidays wherever your own travels take you this season.

Jazzberry Blue, Alice in Wonderland

Jazzberry Blue, Alice in Wonderland

Seventh Art Shop, Star Wars

Seventh Art Shop, Star Wars

Mr. Bluebird, The NeverEnding Story

Mr. Bluebird, The NeverEnding Story

Cantabrigia, Alice in Wonderland

Cantabrigia, Alice in Wonderland

Studio Moriarty, Rapunzel's Tower

Studio Moriarty, Rapunzel’s Tower

Steve Thomas, H. P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth

Steve Thomas, H. P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth

Steve Thomas, The Lord of the Rings

Steve Thomas, The Lord of the Rings

Ursulav, H. P. Lovecraft's The Cats of Ulthar

Ursulav, H. P. Lovecraft’s The Cats of Ulthar

Martin Montgomery, The Legend of Zelda

Martin Montgomery, The Legend of Zelda

Steve Thomas, Star Wars

Steve Thomas, Star Wars

Seventh Art Shop, Game of Thrones

Seventh Art Shop, Game of Thrones

Steve Thomas, Star Wars

Steve Thomas, Star Wars

Mr. Bluebird, NeverLand

Mr. Bluebird, NeverLand

Steve Thomas, NeverLand

Steve Thomas, NeverLand

Seventh Art Shop, Chronicles of Narnia

Seventh Art Shop, Chronicles of Narnia

Seventh Art Shop, Lord of the Rings

Seventh Art Shop, Lord of the Rings

Henry Conrad Taylor - Avatar the Last Airbender

Henry Conrad Taylor, Avatar the Last Airbender

Studio Moriarty, Harry Potter

Studio Moriarty, Harry Potter

Dream Machine Prints - Lord of the Rings

Dream Machine Prints, Lord of the Rings

Studio Moriarty, Harry Potter

Studio Moriarty, Harry Potter

Claire Malboeuf, Futurama

Claire Malboeuf, Futurama

Seventh Art Shop, Game of Thrones

Seventh Art Shop, Game of Thrones

Dream Machine Prints - Lord of the Rings

Dream Machine Prints, Lord of the Rings

Caroline Hadilaksano, Harry Potter

Caroline Hadilaksano, Harry Potter

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By |2018-08-12T16:28:35+00:00December 16th, 2017|Books, Design, Illustrations|

Little Red Riding Hood Meets Minimalism

I have always found elegance in directness. When I was a five-year-old in kindergarten, I loved going to the National Gallery and looking at the giant Motherwell. I was amazed at how powerful and moving a rather spare artwork could be. When I was a twenty-one-year-old in grad school, I loved Whistler’s Nocturnes, and how much force he could achieve with two days of painting.

Robert Motherwell's Reconciliation Elegy, 1978

Robert Motherwell’s Reconciliation Elegy, 1978

Indeed, in the feud between John Ruskin and Whistler, when their disagreements reached the courtroom opposing counsel asked Whistler how he could ask 200 guineas for a two-day painting. Whistler replied, “I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.” He won the trial (but was awarded damages of just one farthing).

As a grad student, when people asked me why I made such slow, intricately detailed work, I related Whistler’s tale and explained that I lacked the knowledge of a lifetime. Older now, I have no such excuse and have embraced the maximalism of horror vaccui as a personal pathology. You can see it at work, for example, in these three Red Cap collages I made for Mirror Mirrored.

Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold

Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold, 1875

Little Red Riding Hood Maximalism

Still, I have an immense respect and appreciation for people who can do more with less, which is one reason I find wonder tales so powerful. I especially enjoy fairy tale work by artists whose aesthetic matches this impulse, so here are some minimalist Little Red Riding Hood images that I’ve found floating around the internet.

Little Red Riding Hood by Christian Jackson

Christian Jackson

Little Red Riding Hood by Pablo Gauthier

Pablo Gauthier

Little Red Riding Hood by Pinto Sketches

Pinto Sketches

Little Red Riding Hood by Dina Waluyo

Dina Waluyo

Little Red Riding Hood by Noma Bar

Noma Bar

Little Red Riding Hood and Moby Dick by Lowe/SSP3

Lowe/SSP3 (mashing up Red Cap and Moby Dick)

Little Red Riding Hood by Indre Bankauskaite

Indre Bankauskaite

There is also the wonderful retelling Little Red by Bethan Woollvin which, though not quite minimalist, does have one scene in particular that does very much with fairly little. (In this retelling, Little Red is quite the competent ax wielder and thus saves herself from an unfortunate fate rather than waiting on a wandering huntsman. You can buy the book here if you would like to read more, or check out her retelling of “Rapunzel” where the heroine is equally capable of taking care of herself.)

LittleRedBethanWoollvin

The Wolf made a plan.

The Wolf made a plan.

Finally, I would like to share a moment from Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang. In this classic text, recently revised for a 25th anniversary edition, the author shares her journey from not understanding picture structure at all to studying art and the psychology of art to writing this masterpiece of visual thinking, which Brian Selznick calls “The Strunk and White of Visual Literacy.” The book covers shape, color, direction, number, scale, and so much more, while adeptly describing how each affects the emotion and psychology of the viewer. I advise it to every 101 student I teach. And, as it happens, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf play a part in the book’s narrative. To conclude this post, I will share a few passages below, but urge you to acquire this phenomenal book for yourself. (You can buy it at Amazon here.)

After discussing and showing us various ways to draw Little Red Riding Hood, her mother, and the forest, Bang goes on to describe how she draws the wolf. I have excerpted, below, what she writes about drawing the wolf’s eye.

When we want a picture to feel scary, it is more effective to graphically exaggerate the scary aspects of the threat and of its environment than to represent them as close to photographic reality as possible, because

this is the way we feel things look.

What else does the wolf need in order to look more wolfish?

WolfsEye01 by Molly Bang

It needs an eye.

I cut the eye out of the purple paper, since there are three colors available in addition to the white, and the new color attracts our attention. Also, I wanted to use all three colors plus white in every picture.

I made the eye a long diamond or lozenge shape, emphasizing the pointiness of a real wolf’s eye but getting rid of the curves.

WolfsEye02 by Molly Bang

But even though wolves’ eyes are often pale blue, it didn’t look right.

Why is this eye so much scarier?

WolfsEye03 by Molly Bang

The obvious answer is that it is red, but why should a red eye be so much scarier than a pale-purple eye?

Purple is a milder, less aggressive color than red, but why? Part of the reason may be purely psychological: somehow red excites us. Psychologists have found that people tend to get into more fights in bright-red and hot-pink rooms and tend to eat more in rooms with red walls than they do in rooms with paler colors. Part of the reason may be that we associate red with blood and fire, so this is a bloody, fiery eye rather than an eye associated with flowers or with the evening sky. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen drunken, bloodshot eyes, or eyes reflected in a campfire, and those were red. In some fairy tales, the eyes of witches are described as being red. Red eyes are unnatural, and unnatural things make us wary. And red is an energetic color, a color with agency, so while all-white eyes are also unnatural, it is red eyes that have the energy to be hostile.

But I notice something else with the replacement of the purple eye with the red, something I wasn’t expecting: I immediately associate Little Red Riding Hood with the wolf’s eye, in a way I didn’t before. They go together. Now the eye is looking at her.

The strong association is almost solely due to the color; when I made the eye round but still red, I associated it with Little Red Riding Hood the same way.

What happens if the eye is made exactly the same color and shape as Little Red Riding Hood?

WolfsEye04 by Molly Bang

The wolf looks stupid now, or surprised, or maybe happy. Its glance is no longer pointed at its prey. Certainly it is not nearly as evil-looking as it was before. The picture feels very different, and yet all that has been changed is the shape of the eye.

A more disconcerting effect to me is that the two red triangles are now so alike, and I associate them so much with each other, that they disassociate from the rest of the picture. They are no longer meaningful elements. I see them not so much as Little Red Riding Hood and a wolf’s eye now, but more as two red triangles that float up and out of the picture.

I return to the wolf with the more pointed red eye.

WolfsEye05 by Molly Bang

And, in case you were curious, this is what the scene looks like when all is said and done. From here, Bang continues by listing and illuminating twelve fantastic visual principles (all wonderfully illustrated).

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Final by Molly Bang

And with this beautiful image, I will conclude the post. Thank you so much for reading.

You can find more information about the minimalist illustrators and artists mentioned in this article at these sites: Molly Bang, Indre Bankauskaite, Noma Bar, Pablo Gauthier, Alessandro Gottardo, Christian Jackson and more information on his series by My Modern Met here, Lowe/SSP3 and more information on its series by Chic Type here, Pinto Sketches, Dina Waluyo, and Bethan Woollvin.

Books mentioned in this article:

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LittleRedBethanWoollvin

Bethan Woolvin Rapunzel

Molly Bang Picture This

By |2018-08-12T16:28:46+00:00December 9th, 2017|Books, Creative, Design, Illustrations|

Jennie Harbour, Where Have You Gone?

My Book of Favourite Fairy Tales.
Edric Vredenburg, ed. / Jennie Harbour, ill.
London: Raphael Tuck, 1921

One of the most beautiful and contemporary wonder tale books I’ve seen, My Favourite Book of Fairy Tales, was published near the end of the Golden Age of illustration in 1921. It is illustrated by an exceptionally talented artist, acclaimed in her own lifetime, who history has transformed into an elusive mystery: Jennie Harbour.

The fairy tale book was printed by Raphael Tuck, Publishers to Their Majesties the King and Queen of Great Britain, and Harbour’s illustrations (especially the black and white images) still feel exciting and fresh when I open the book today. Here are a few examples (you can see them all at Project Gutenberg, although the digitized images there don’t really do the book justice).

Red Riding Hood by Jennie Harbour

Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood

Goose Girl by Jennie Harbour

The Goose Girl

The White Cat

 

Snow White and Rose Red by Jennie Harbour

Snow White and Rose Red

Tufty Riquet by Jennie Harbour

Tufty Riquet

Upon first seeing these pictures, I was curious about this fantastic artist and tried to track down more information about her. It was easy to find accolades. For example:

“[T]he artistic and quite incomparable work of Jennie Harbour, [is from] an artist in a class by herself.” The Stationary World, June 1920, p335.

“[H]er Majesty the Queen, accompanied by Princess Mary, honoured the exhibits of Messrs. Raphael Tuck & Sons by her inspection. . . . The delightful colour facsimiles of early Victorian subjects, after Miss Jennie Harbour, which have become so popular, came in for special Royal commendation.” The Stationary World, March-April 1919, p142.

“Miss Jennie Harbour’s pictures [in My Book of Favourite Fairy Tales] are a delight to the eye, with their firm, graceful outlines and their original colour schemes. ‘The Goose Girl’ and ‘The Magic Mirror’ are our favourites. . . . The children will love this book.” The Bookman, Christmas 1921, p44.

“‘Favourite Fairy Tales,’ with illustrations by Jennie Harbour, should enjoy considerable popularity. It is so eminently attractive.” The Play Pictorial No. 226, Vol. XXXVIII (1921) p134.

“[The] famous collection of Jennie Harbour pictures [is] known all the world over.” The Stationary World, February 1920, page 89.

But it was nearly impossible to find anything more about her.1 (Adele C. Geraghty has even launched a website, with the hope of writing her biography, asking for “[a]ny information concerning this enigmatic artist [which] would be very much appreciated, especially from any persons who may have had a personal tie with her in some way.”) Unfortunately, as many have noted, and The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History states: “From antiquity forward, most tales of great artists and litanies of notable women included a small sampling of women artists . . . . often described as unusually talented women who overcame the limitations of their sex to excel in a masculine endeavor.” Indeed, Harbour’s arguably most popular picture, “Hansel and Gretel” from 1921, is quite possibly known largely because it was “borrowed” by J. R. R. Tolkien as inspiration for his drawing of trolls in The Hobbit in 1937. You can see the two pictures here side by side.

Jennie Harbour & J. R.R. Tolkien

Jennie Harbour (1921) / J. R. R. Tolkien (1937)

The children’s book historian Brian Alderson notes in The Hobbit, 50th Anniversary Edition that the basic composition of “The Trolls” was borrowed from Harbour. John Garth claims that Tolkien, however, “denied that his ‘imagination had fed on pictures, as it clearly had been by certain kinds of literature and languages,’ declaring himself ‘not well acquainted with pictorial Art.'”2 In a September 19, 1971 letter to Carole Batten-Phelps, Tolkien goes further:

“[A visitor] had been much struck by the curious way in which many old pictures seemed to him to have been designed as to illustrate The Lord of the Rings long before its time. He brought one or two reproductions. I think he wanted at first simply to discover whether my imagination had fed on pictures, as it clearly had been [fed] by certain kinds of literature and languages. When it became obvious that, unless I was a liar, I had never seen the pictures before and was not well acquainted with pictorial Art, he fell silent.”3

I leave you to your own judgment.

Regardless, I hope you enjoy Jennie Harbour’s masterful work, which reminds me, in its best moments, of a more compositionally ambitious, less detailed Harry Clarke. You can (sometimes) purchase a hard-to-find used copy of My Favourite Book of Fairy Tales here, or her Hans Andersen book here, can find Harbour’s other illustrations scattered about the world and cyberspace, and her pictures remixed into the book Mirror Mirrored, such as the images below.

Snow White

Snow White

Snow White and Rose Red

Snow White and Rose Red

1. There is a site that claims her father was an immigrant milliner from Poland to London, she went to a boarding school in Kent, never married, and died in 1959 after which her remains were interred in London’s Hoop Lane cemetery—unfortunately, the site neither provides any citations nor clues as to where it found this information. See http://collectingvintagecompacts.blogspot.com/2014/11/compacts-by-rex-prints-by-jennie.html

2. John Garth, “Artists and Illustrators’ Influence on Tolkien” in J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, ed. Michael D.C. Drout (Routledge, November 2006).

3. Letter from J. R. R. Tolkien to Carole Batten-Phelps, September 19, 1971, viewable at http://theamericanreader.com/19-september-1971-jrr-tolkien-to-carole-batten-phelps/

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By |2018-08-12T16:34:05+00:00November 12th, 2017|Books, Creative, Design, Illustrations|