Colouring the Rainbow

Maria Tatar, John L. Loeb Professor of Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University, falls under the spell of illustrations as she explores their unique ability to call to life Andrew Lang’s vibrant fairy-tale worlds.


Ask adults to recall the details of their favourite books from childhood, and they will often respond by describing an illustration: the chromatic beauty of the Firebird, the blood-red roses adorning Snow White’s coffin, or Thumbelina’s tiny walnut-shell cradle. Like Proust’s madeleine, these visual souvenirs are saturated with memory and meaning. They have a talismanic strength that remains impossible to explicate without resorting to the murky language of mystical thought.

When it comes to stimulating the senses, words have a hard time competing with images. The visual beckons, inviting us to look and touch, sometimes even to prick up our ears, smell and taste. Words, by contrast, instruct us to transform black marks on white pages into worlds inhabited by dark goblins and green monkeys, trees with trunks of gold and leaves of emerald, a bridge of clouds or a child the size of a hazelnut.

Tomislav Tomic illustrations Orange Fairy Book

Illustrations © Tomislav Tomić, The Orange Fairy Book

The fairy tales in Andrew Lang’s remarkable series are local in the best sense of the term, capturing colourful versions of cultural narratives that operate in a global network of storytelling. Yet they can also be astonishingly vague and imprecise, indeed almost abstract, when it comes to describing their characters, contenting themselves with such phrases as ‘the most beautiful girl he had ever seen’. The tellers of these tales conceal as much as they reveal, requiring us t use our imaginations to fill in the details, above all when it comes to beauty.

The art historian Leo Steinberg famously referred once to mute images and meddling texts. His lectures on the subject were never published, but his poetic phrasing reminds us that illustrations have a robust evocative power, stimulating imaginations rather than imprisoning them. If we occasionally rebel against the depiction of a Rumplestiltskin, Sleeping Beauty or Frog King, we can always go back to the meddling text (which does not meddle much) and envision our own versions of these figures.

Debra McFarlane illustrations, The Pink Fairy Book

Illustrations © Debra McFarlane, The Pink Fairy Book

The Folio Society’s set of Andrew Lang’s fairy tales gives us foundational print versions of tales that once circulated in oral storytelling cultures. Gone are the embodied gestures and vocal intonations of the folk raconteur, which means that we as readers are all the more eager to welcome the silent partner of illustration. Henry J. Ford’s black-and-white drawings, which appeared in Lang’s original series of fairy books, set the bar high for later illustrators. Who can forget Ford’s portrait of the gloomy miller’s daughter, seated by a spinning wheel, contemplating her fate as a door opens to reveal the mysterious gnome who will rescue her from the wrath of a king yet also put her to a terrible test? Still, Ford’s old-fashioned sensibilities and mannered nostalgia are unlikely to bring the tales alive for child readers today. Lang had the genius to understand the evocative power of colour for children in creating a rainbow series, with a spectrum of hues embodied in the covers for each volume. For that reason alone, colour has its place, not only on the covers but also in the images that help us to visualise fairy-tale worlds as we read the words on the page.

Danuta Mayer illustrations, The Yellow Fairy Book

Illustrations © Danuta Mayer, The Yellow Fairy Book

In The Pink Fairy Book, Debra McFarlane gives us bursts of primary colours to enliven a battle with a seven-headed serpent and offers a shower of white snowflakes against a steel-blue background to animate the wintry scene in which the Snow Queen invites Little Kay to ride in her sleigh. Tomislav Tomić reminds us that grotesque monstrosity draws us into the imagined spaces of fairy-tale worlds. In Madame d’Aulnoy’s ‘The White Doe’ he not only creates the pleasurably fearful image of the crab-fairy but, as importantly, enacts our responses to the horror of the clawed creature in the shocked faces and gestures of the fairies gathered around a newborn child. For ‘The Magic Mirror’ he captures the ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur’ that Winckelmann saw in classical sculpture in his depiction of a python and antelope locked in deadly combat. Without Danuta Mayer’s illustrations for The Yellow Fairy Book, we would not be aware of how many animals figure prominently in the dramatis personae of the fairy-tale world. They are fascinating to contemplate, and furthermore, as Claude Levi-Strauss told us, ‘animals are good to think with’.

The best illustrations animate, unsettle and, above all, surprise us. They strike us like a bolt of lightning, illuminating the mysteries of a world created by words. But they also provide us with wise companions who share their interpretations with us and channel the beauty of the tale with all the shades of the rainbow and the richness of their imaginations.


This article first appeared in the March 2014 issue of the Folio Magazine. All of Andrew Lang’s Rainbow Fairy books can be found here on the Folio Society website.

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