“The dictionary definitions – tale, fable, legend – are all inadequate when I think of my little German Märchenbuch (Fairy tale book) 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 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.”
These are the memories of Wanda Gág, an artist, writer and translator who grew up in Minnesota at the end of the 19th century. She went on to create a series of classic children’s books including Millions of Cats (1928), the oldest American picture book still in print. She also published diaries, translated and wrote beautifully crisp introductions to books like Tales from Grimm.
“I was born in this country, but often feel as though I had spent my early years in Europe. My father was born in Bohemia, as were my mother’s parents. My birthplace—New Ulm, Minnesota—was settled by Middle-Europeans, and I grew up in an atmosphere of Old World customs and legends, of Bavarian and Bohemian folk songs, of German Märchen and Turnverein activities. I spoke no English until I went to school. In our home artistic expression of all kinds was taken for granted. Our father, Anton Gág, was an artist and in our mother’s family the creative urge took the form of painting, modelling and fine cabinet work. We children—six girls and a boy—all drew and most of us wrote stories and poems.”
It’s hard to imagine a more suitable environment in which to hear these tales. But Gág’s life took a positively Grimm turn when her father died, leaving 15 year old Wanda the breadwinner.
“Only Mama and I knew what had happened that day in May when Papa, calling me to his bedside and taking my hand, had said faintly, ‘Was der Papa nicht thun konnt, muss die Wanda halt jertig machen’ (What papa couldn’t do, Wanda will have to finish).”
And like a character from fairy tales, Wanda did her father’s bidding and provided for the family. On one occasion she writes in her diaries (published as Growing Pains), “Made 115 place cards in about 2 days. Wish I could keep the money and buy dresses with, but what’s the use of dreaming all the time?”
Wanda eventually won a scholarship to art school in Minnesota and later New York before embarking on a career that was highly unusual for a woman from her background at this time. She managed it with more than a little style, setting up as a commercial illustrator before moving into children’s books, all the while maintaining the best Louise Brooks bob in children’s literature.
By 1936, aged 43, Wanda had moved to All Creation, a farm in rural New Jersey. It was here that she reconnected with Grimm, producing drawings for Hansel and Gretel.
“The old Märchen magic gripped me again and I felt that I could not rest until I had expressed in pictures all that Märchen meant to me. In order to be influenced as directly as possible by the real spirit of these stories, I read them in the original german. I had no idea of writing my own text but I soon found that I wanted to do this also.”
Gág is probably unique in having both illustrated and translated the Brothers Grimm into English. I doubt anyone has done either better. She just gets it.
“The fairy world in these stories, though properly weird and strange, has a convincing, three-dimensional character. There is magic, wonder, sorcery, but no vague airy-fairyness about it. The German witches are not wispy wraiths flying in the air – they usually live in neat cottages and wear starched bonnets and spotless aprons.”
When she tackles the more famous tales, Wanda still manages to surprise. The version of Cinderella that we know so well, with its fairy godmother and pumpkin coach, never figured in any of the Grimm versions. Wanda sticks doggedly to the text, restoring some of the original magic.
Fairy Tales were deeply unfashionable in America at the time she was writing. Popular educational theory said children should be reading realistic stories. There’s a sense that Gág is working hard to save some of these stories from obscurity. Six Servants is a particular labour of love, and a loose translation which trims much of the superfluous material and anticlimactic ending.
Despite a familiar scenario in which a prince challenges a witch for a princess’s hand in marriage, Six Servants still manages to surprise. On his journey the prince encounters a cast of six proper mutants who prefigure X-Men by a couple of hundred years. Among them are The Looker, with his super sight, The Listener with awesome ears, Shatter Eyes, with his deadly bandaged peepers and Frosty Hot who can enter an inferno and still come out shivering.
Gág’s art style marries American folk art style with deep, dark tones straight out of the forests of Germany, a combination that suit the Grimm tales perfectly.
In 1938 Walt Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Wanda wasn’t impressed, calling it ‘trivialised, sterilised, and sentimentalised’. In reply she created her own version, arguably the definitive retelling of the famous tale. It’s hugely witty and deeply disturbing in equal measure. The image of the wicked queen preparing her poisoned apple, face covered with a cloth and a box full of disguises at the ready, is fit for any serial killer movie.
The details are sublime – especially in the Dwarfs’ house, which viewers of the film will remember as being a right state until the little house-maker comes to stay. Here the opposite applies with neatly laid table and perfectly turned down sheets. Snow White arrives, Goldilocks-like, and messes up all of their beds before finding the right one for a snooze.
What makes Wanda Gág’s Tales From Grimm so successful is the marriage of a dark sense of humour with amazing attention to detail in her art and writing – there can’t be too many collections of Fairy tales that come with a glossary.