As I write this, I’m sitting on the shore of a lake in a forest in northernmost Vermont. Though June, it’s a chilly day, chilly enough for fur-lined boots and woollen sweaters. I’m taking a break from several days of working on a rather complicated and, for me, difficult art project: a large (4 foot across) dragonfly made of thin copper wire, of which I bought a large spool at the local hardware store. Woven into the webby wings of my dragonfly will be the refrain of Yeats’ poem, The Stolen Child:
Come away, O human child
To the waters and the wild
With a fairy hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
It’s intricate going, but quite therapeutic. I’m imagining it hovering over the water from an overhanging tree branch, delicate and weather-worn. Well, we’ll see about that!
I’ve always loved reading about fairies and elves, dragons and djinns – poems with a slight edge of menace, or at least mystery, stories that revealed hidden worlds so much deeper than the one around us. Worlds that were certainly darker and more mysterious than the green lawns and new sidewalks of the New Jersey suburb where I grew up.
The book that introduced me to this enchanting world was The Giant Golden Book of Elves and Fairies. I read and re-read it through my elementary school years ( till discovering The Hobbit on a low bookshelf in the Hillside School library in the 5th grade, which ratcheted my fantasy reading level up a few million notches.) I loved that giant Golden book so much that I’ve never let it go, and even brought it up here to The Northeast Kingdom, which this area of Vermont is called, and which sounds like – and is – the perfect home for such a book.
I always knew the stories and poems in it were of a time and a world gone by; other “fantasy” books, like The Wizard of Oz, or Half Magic, were firmly grounded in modern times, the magic in them purposefully odd and out of place. They were clever, self-aware, and a little bit funny. But The Giant Golden Book of Elves and Fairies was always a little sad to me, and I loved it all the more for that. I liked the wistful feeling it gave me, the weeping I could not understand.
Many of the poems and stories were by Irish and English authors born before the 20th century, so the language itself was, to my ears, something wonderful. There are stories about swedish trolls and brownies on the back porch, a flying, salmon-loving bear, a lost merbaby, and leprechauns who live in a room beneath a tree; and lovely poems about where to find all manner of wee folk, dancing, making music, selling lost thimbles and dolls’ shoes in tiny second-hand shops.
In my favorite story, The Pixies’ Scarf, by Alison Uttley (born 1884, Derbyshire, England), young Dicky finds a “wisp of rainbow color, [which he] found was woven silk”, while picking whortleberries on Dartymoor with his grandmother. Whortleberries? Dartymoor? I didn’t need to look them up, though I didn’t know exactly what they were. The uncertainty was lovely.
When, in the end, Dicky traded the pixie queen’s scarf back for some pixie marbles that turned out to be gemstones, he and his poor grandmother could now be rich. “And we’ll live on Devonshire junket and cream, shall we Grannie?”, he said. Did little English children love that question as much as I did? What I loved most though, was that Dicky retained one ruby marble for himself, and with it became marble champion of the Dartymoor, “… and he took care to tell nobody where his marble came from, lest it, too, should be sold, for money isn’t everything.” I still really love that story.
But what I loved most, most most most, about this book were the illustrations, masterpieces large and small by the great, maybe the greatest, illustrator, Garth Williams (born in 1912, New York City, USA). Best known for his illustrations of all the E.B. White novels (Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan), The Little House on the Prairie series, and countless other marvels, his artwork in this book has probably influenced me more than any other illustrated book I’ve read. Unlike the stories, they had no tinge of sadness or of the past, but were full of color and a very present sense of detail, with a kindness -for an illustration can indeed be kind – that elevated and enhanced the innocence of the writings.
The book itself is a classic large picture book, big enough to really fill a child’s lap. As soon as you open it, the gorgeous endpapers draw you into its world: a misty blue forest, dark and ferny, with tiny lilies glowing like streetlights on half-hidden fairies in the grass. The very first poem, When a Ring’s Around the Moon, sets the tone with its two-page spread, the poem floating on a cloud of white within the wider scene.
These two-page panoramas, meandering in and out of the words surrounding them, were like wide-screen movies on the page. Smaller, more intimate vignettes and single page illustrations are all equally beautiful. Even the back cover, with its tiny little houses perched on a very sparse tree, was worthy of attention.
Oddly enough, these wonderful stories of fairies and moors, shoemakers and berry-picking grannies, do not seems any more distant now than they did when I first read them. It’s as though they receded into a misty mid-distance, and that’s where they’ve remained, still ready to bewitch us, by a lake in the woods. But now I have to get back to that dragonfly. Yesterday was Yeats’ birthday, and I don’t want to disappoint him.
Karen Abada lives in Montclair, New Jersey, USA and is a regular reader of A Book a Day in Hay.
Thanks to Karen for sending in this blog post. If you would like to introduce a book (it can be *any book*) please email 500 max or a video of up to 2 minutes to Emma at firstname.lastname@example.org. It helps if you can also send a high resolution photo of the front cover and a couple of other interesting photos as in this post. Thanks!