Attempting as I am to write a book that is within the realm of the New Weird, somewhere between fantasy and science fiction, I know that this book needs to impart a sense of the strange, the (yes) weird, the bizarre and the beauty within the bizarre. It needs to feel a bit alien. And as I feel my way, writing prose that I hope imparts the strangeness of the somewhat post-apocalyptic world I’m creating, I’ve been drawn lately to old-school fairy tale illustrations. These illustrations convey at a glance what I’m struggling to portray through words.
One of the most well-known fairy tale illustrators is Edmund Dulac. I’ve been a fan of his work for a while. Here’s a favorite, for the fairy tale “The Blue Bird.” This story is not nearly as well known as tales like “The Sleeping Beauty” or “Cinderella,” but at one glance it’s clear that this is not a portrait of normalcy. For one thing, there’s three blue frogs – with wings! – drawing a carriage. A lady with a spangly black cape points a wand at a man who clearly objects. Not only is this a picture of magical hijinks, it is extremely compelling. I want to know what will happen next.
Another favorite of mine is Dulac’s “The Firebird.” One of the reasons I love this picture is its echoes of Marc Chagall, both in the saturated colors and the imagery of man and bird floating in the sky. Here, the triumphant firebird carries a presumed prince who is obviously overcome to see the lady slumbering on a bed of bright flowers. Again, we are catching a glimpse of a different reality.
So, yes, I’m a big fan of Dulac. The artist I’ve been wowed by recently, though, is another well-known illustrator of fairy tales – Kay Nielsen. Here, for example, we have an illustration for a tale where an intrepid shepherd girl, with the aid of a mysterious witch, breaks the enchantment of Prince Lindworm, a serpent who has devoured his two previous brides. I must admit that when I look at this picture my eye tends to go toward the enormous candles, which to me are the strangest element of this illustration – and so, until I found the name of the tale this picture corresponded to, I didn’t notice the coils of the prince menacingly wrapped around the feet of his bride.
Nielsen also created a striking illustration for Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” Like many of Mr. Anderson’s tales, this is not a particularly happy story. It’s a tale notable for the tin soldier’s point of view and the fact that through all of his adversities and emotions, he makes the apparent choice to never change expression and to remain steadfast. At the end of the story, a child tosses him into the stove. The soldier isn’t sure whether the heat he feels is the fire or his love for the paper ballerina. A stray gust blows her into the flames as well and, without ever having exchanged a word with the dancer, the soldier melts down into the shape of a heart. Here, Nielsen has captured the dancer’s oblivious pose as she flies into the flames, as well as the tin soldier’s inability to help her.
Visual art is often an inspiration for compelling verse – just look at Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” I know I need to convey strong visual images with my prose so that the reader can catch a glimpse of the same odd world I see. I used to dismiss setting when I read, skipping past pages of descriptive prose – I was always eager to get to what I considered the interesting part, conversations and inner dialogue. But I’ve come to understand that setting helps ground the reader in the world that the writer creates – and without it, the reader is untethered.