Working with text from the oral tradition: on illustrating White as Milk, Red as Blood (Knopf)
|The Flax Sowers: Valley, from White as Milk, Red as Blood, Willow Dawson (Knopf)|
—Philip Pullman from the Foreword.
I was recently contacted by Victoria Sussens-Messerer, the journalist who wrote the 2012 Guardian article on the discovery of the Franz Xaver von Schönwerth archive containing over 500 new fairy tales that I would later have the huge honor of illustrating. She asked if I would write a piece for the Schönwerth Society about the experience of creating White as Milk, Red as Blood (Knopf). It was a bit of an unusual experience working with these tales, transcribed directly from the oral tradition, and I think it makes for a fascinating read so I'm going to share it with you here in English. Victoria is in the process now of translating this. It will soon appear on the Schönwerth Society website in German as part of their curated archive of Schönwerth works. Another enormous honor!
So without further ado ...
White as Milk, Red as Blood
Adding another layer of meaning: Willow Dawson on illustrating the tales
Fairy tale books are one of the few places where we still see illustrations for adults and yet I would argue that much of the focus (certainly in North America) is on mirroring the text. In other words, the images repeat the text without necessarily adding to the narrative. I adore this type of illustration and when I was in the proposal stage I was excited to do just that! But once our translator Shelley and I got a first look at the material we realized this book would have to be different.
My background is in graphic novels. And in graphic novels we have a saying, “Never describe what you’ve drawn.” You would never draw your character lacing up their shoes and have them say, “I am lacing up my shoes.” This would bore readers. The relationship between text and image in graphic novels is a finely tuned marriage. Separate, neither tells a complete story but together they combine to create a whole that can be many layered and quite beautiful. White as Milk, Red as Blood is not a graphic novel but the treatment of text and image is borrowed from this medium.
I’ll talk for a minute about the choices we made not just in terms of story selection, but also the direction taken with the translations and the illustrations. Then I will go a little further in-depth with a few of the stories.
When I first read about the re-discovery of Von Schönwerth tales, I learned that they had never been Disneyfied (or Grimm-ed, for that matter). They had never been edited or revised or toned down. They were raw and bloody and honest. I was also very intrigued by the fact that not all of the heroes were men. There were female heroines, too.
As a woman I’ve certainly encountered my share of unwanted (sometimes “playful” sometimes dangerous) attention from men. I’ve also lived with a life-threatening illness and come close to death on several occasions. And I am a mother. I wanted to explore stories that didn’t shy away from violence and death, from the harshness and fragility of life, from gender roles and expectations. Shelley agreed and we singled out a few themes: shape shifting, transformation and disguises; role reversal and fluidity; gender; sex, violence and death; rawness and vulgarity. This became the basis for our curation of the material.
To our surprise and delight, we found that there were some remarkably feminist elements to many of the tales. This contrasted sharply with my own understanding of people’s views and opinions at the time of their recording. But as we examined the material on a deeper, closer level, we could see darker things at play. A quiet nod here or there to the violence and oppression many humans continue to encounter today. I think White as Milk, Red as Blood does a good job of illuminating the fact that in 150 years, sadly, not much has changed. People continue to experience oppression because of faith, gender, sex, poverty, the color of the flesh on their bones.
Despite the fact that the tales are as rough and jagged as unpolished stones the decision not to smooth them out, adapt or romanticize them was intentional. What you see inside are translations that carefully preserve the original recordings by Von Schönwerth. This gave the illustrations the freedom to veer off course, to add layers, emphasize meaning, to say what they needed to say about our world then and our world now.
In the oral tradition the storyteller puts the meat on the bones of the tale. They might change motifs or add details here and there to modernize it slightly. This is how these tales were kept relevant for thousands of years. In our book, the illustrations take on this role. And I would argue that they go a little further, even. They don’t just illuminate the text, they illuminate the parts of the tales that were whispered or not said at all but are there, nonetheless.
As you read my notes on the more specific themes I saw emerge from the tales I’ve included below I hope you’ll be able to gain an understanding of Shelley’s and my decisions throughout the process of creating White as Milk, Red as Blood.
“WHITE AS MILK, RED AS BLOOD”
Themes: Sexual assault, murder, loss and grief, silencing of victims and survivors
In my research I read that milk symbolizes the mother, eternal life, fertility, purity, kindness, love, wholesomeness and nature. But it was super important to me that the women in this book not all be light skinned, and there was enough ambiguity in the description of the girl to give her darker skin, so I did. It was my Art Directors idea to give her white hair.
When I started this book I was pregnant with my first child. After five years of motherhood and many new white hairs I now see how relevant her white hair is — especially in one who has endured years of torture and grief in silence. This isn’t simply a tale of purity and innocence and wholesomeness and enduring love. Kidnapping, sexual assault, infanticide, grief and loss, and the silencing of victims and survivors are some of the major themes I found lying beneath the surface.
The girl’s trauma starts in childhood where she is forced to suck the “little finger” of her captor. I read and reread this odd addition to the story, which at first seemed out of place, only to realize it’s quite possibly the beginning of the abuse and probably the reason she does endure the years of silence and violence later on. She was primed not to tell. Most child victims don’t come forward until they’re much older — in their 30’s and beyond.
“Beside her bed he saw the three flowers, still in full bloom. He shook his head, because the forest maiden had confided in him that as long as they did not wither and fade, the flowers were a symbol: of his wife’s innocence and devotion.” But they are not simply a measure of her innocence and devotion or her beauty; they keep her alive for seven years of brutal torture and silence at the hands of jealous women.
I did a tonne of research to find the right flowers for each of the stories. I looked at what flowers grow in Germany, then found the ones that best fit the descriptions in each of the tales (where they aren’t named), and which ones have symbolism that best matches the tale or the tone / mood of the tale in question. In this case the flowers are described as having “magnificent colours” and the blossoms having a “sweet scent.” Unfortunately, anemones don’t have much scent at all (they are more musky than sweet) but they are colourful and win out in the symbolism department. Anemones symbolize protection against evil and ill wishes, the death or loss of a loved one, bad luck and ill omens.
The grey-blue colour I chose for the leaves is intended to mirror the roof of the hut, described as looking like matted grey hair.
Themes: shape shifting, transformation, disguises, sexual assault, abusive partners, entrapment, oppression
As the women bathe in the lake they begin to take on the characteristics of lake dwellers. They have scales “upon inspection” so instead of drawing the women from head to toe in pretty dresses I focused on what we would find underneath. The water is the skirt hiding the “ugliness,” the scales are only visible from beneath.*
Shelley said that when she read the original German it was clear to her that it was talking about sexual assault. When she translated, she purposefully chose language to make that clear: “They saw bridegrooms dragging their wives around by the hair. They saw beating and thrusting that went on as long as the men pleased. And when it was over the men ran away.”
On the Singing Bones podcast, Clare Testoni interviews playwright Finn O’Branagáin about “The Little Mermaid” and Selkie mythology. As a child she says she thought “The Little Mermaid” was a romantic story of love but when she grew up and reread it she realized it’s a story about oppression and entrapment and abuse.
We saw this, too, in “Fishwomen.” We loved the fact that the ending is ambiguous. It’s not clear whether the giant is their protector or has just consumed them. The great temptation when working with fairy tales or old stories from the oral tradition is to tidy up those uncertainties. But Shelley purposefully left them open to interpretation because we believe the ambiguity in these tales more accurately parallels real life today. The things we talk about and the things we do not.
In this case, I ask readers to think about domestic violence. How an abuser is violent one day, and the next turns that violence outward, acting almost as protector. But what looks chivalrous to the outsider is often another way of asserting power and control over their victim. Listen to Real Crime Profile podcast to understand more about this behaviour and how it relates to domestic violence, stalking and homicide.
It was important to me that the giant look menacing: some kind of invasive species with lots of sharp teeth, like a lamprey or a shark. My Art Director suggested we draw the inside of the mouth, looking out. In the tale, the women are always referred to in the third person but we wanted to force readers to have to sit uncomfortably in their shoes for a minute. Here we experience the stillness in the moments that follow the storm. The flames have been put out but the water is black and still, like ink or tar.
“THE FLAX SOWERS”
Shelley and I thought this tale was very interesting. At first glance this is the story of two sisters. The ugly one concentrates on the flax and sows a perfect crop in the valley. She is kind and leaves some flax each year for the Forest Maidens. Her linen is perfect. The beautiful sister spends more time concerned with her looks than taking care of her crop in the mountain. Her flax and her cloth suffer from neglect.
But there is a sinister subtext of racism eroding the sweetness of the beautiful meadow here. The Prince travels with a Moor and the Moor is depicted as a fool who is more than happy to take his castaway.
I wanted to show how human ugliness (racism, narcissism, stereotyping, etc.) transforms beauty into decay. If you look closely at the first illustration, the flax harbors a variety of pests: a bollworm, a grasshopper, a tarnished plant bug, a variegated fritillary.
Themes: Transformation, shape shifting Sexual awakening
Sometimes the smallest, seemingly most insignificant detail in a story turns out to be the most worth investigating. In this case, Ashfeathers is given a hazelnut branch by her father, which she carries to the well and then loses.
Hazelnut branches (which look like coiling snakes, themselves) were once used to ward off snakes. And snakes (penises) like to disappear down damp holes (vaginas, anuses) and so it is that snakes came to represent sex or sexual blossoming. Think of the snake and eve.
The story of “Cinderella” or “Ashfeathers” can be seen as a story of transformation and sexual awakening. Each week Ashfeathers sheds her gown, just as a snake sheds its skin. I wanted to reflect this molting, this ripening of fruit, in the illustration. The snake transforms into a hazelnut branch and loses its skin. The branch coils, the nuts ripen, ready to be consumed.
Themes: Racism, colonialism
“The Three Giants,” Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty,” and the Grimm’s “Little Briar-Rose” all feature a sleeping princess in a bewitched castle but Von Schönwerth’s version tells it from a different perspective, from that of the prince-to-be: a pilgrim, wandering with his poor family to the Holy Land. This tale doesn’t mention a wall of thorns but this visual detail is a nod to the versions we are familiar with today.*
Clare Testoni on the Singing Bones podcast says Giants are our “fears and foes made large.” She interviews Jeffrey Jay Fowler about his interpretation of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” he sees it as a tale of British colonialism.
In this tale the giants want to rid the princess of her possessions (and more). I think we hear this same, very simplified, racist messaging repeated against marginalized people all the time. Mexican immigrants in the United States, Blacks and African Americans, Muslims, First Nations, Inuit, Métis, Native Americans, Roma, Irish Traveller, Gypsy... In fact non-white people are often stigmatized as thieves, drug addicts, thugs, rapists, murderers, good-for-nothing, lowlifes.
Is it possible that the giants in this tale are a people displaced by the Kingdom, exiled without human rights, land rights, food, shelter? lt’s hard not to draw comparisons to the history of colonialism and racism that deeply impact Indigenous peoples here in Canada and around the world.
If you look at it from this perspective the story takes on new meaning. Now we are confronted by the possibility that the giants are a racist depiction of Indigenous peoples and the story a vessel to justify their eradication and the extinction of their cultural heritages. This is by no means the main thread in the story but I wanted to leave the readers face to face with this inconvenient truth.
The colour of their skin may be different but just like you or I; those giants are made of bone and blood, as evidenced by the flesh fly, who sees no difference.
“COUNTESS ON A HEDGEHOG”
Themes: Bullying, cyber-shaming
The husband hangs a humiliating picture of his wife up for all visitors to see for all eternity. Shelley and I saw a clear parallel to cyber-shaming in today’s online world, where the deep cruelty of kids can have life-long, devastating and sometimes life-threatening effects. The wounds remain long after the quills are gone.*
“THE KNIGHT AND THE FOREST MAIDEN”
Themes: Stalking and violence against women, women warning women
This was one of the more interesting tales for me. A handsome knight “harasses” the forest maidens, finds a girl lying asleep in the woods, turns his obsessions on her, marries her, and now she must promise the Forest Maidens that she will forever keep him from harassing them? And then what? What happens to her when she marries him?
According to Laura Richards, Criminal Behavioral Analyst, Founder and Director of Paladin, author of DASH Risk Model and 'Policing Domestic Violence' and Jim Clemente, retired FBI Supervisory Special Agent/Profiler and former New York City Prosecutor on their podcast Real Crime Profile, in homicide cases the pattern leading up to homicide is often remarkably similar. Early signs include a relationship that progresses quickly and includes abuse, coercion, assault, violence. When she breaks it off he stalks her and uses coercion to get her back. When the police are called, he gets a slap on the wrist and feels above the law, giving him the confidence to be bolder the next time. The pattern repeats itself, but escalates with each new girlfriend, eventually ending in homicide.
Stalking is never mentioned by name but that is clearly what is going on here. It would have been easy to create a romantic illustration for this tale but I believe that would just have contributed to the veil of silence surrounding this pattern of male violence and domination that continues to permeate our world today. Women create warning systems and protect each other when laws fail to protect them.
* Illustration not pictured here but you can find it in the book!
I hope you will check this book out! White as Milk, Red as Blood is available everywhere where books are sold.
Here are a few places where you can order a copy:
US: Barnes & Noble
White as Milk, Red as Blood:
The Forgotten Fairy Tales of Franz Xaver von Schönwerth
Franz Xaver von Schonwerth (Author)
Willow Dawson (Illustrator)
Shelley Tanaka (Translator)
Philip Pullman (Foreword)