Wonder, Hungry Wolves, and the Whimsy of Resilience: Arthur Rackham’s Haunting 1920 Illustrations for Irish Fairy Tales
A lyrical reminder that our terror and our tenderness spring from the same source.
By Maria Popova
“If you want your children to be intelligent,” Einstein is said to have said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
But fairy tales also make us, children and grown children alike, kinder and more resilient by grounding us in the knowledge — a primal knowledge we unlearn as we grow up and grow frightened of feeling — that the terrible and the transcendent spring from the same source, that our capacity for sorrow and our capacity for love spring from the same source, that the measure of life’s beauty and magic is not the absence of terror and tumult but the presence, persistence, and grace with which we face reality on its own terms.
In 1920, in the middle of Ireland’s guerrilla war for independence, weeks before Bloody Sunday, a book both very new and very old appeared and swiftly disappeared into eager hands — a lyrical, lighthearted, yet poignant retelling of ancient Irish myths by the Irish poet and novelist James Stephens.
The ten stories in his Irish Fairy Tales (public library | public domain) transported readers away from the world of bloodshed and heartache, into another, where the worst and the best of the human spirit entwine in something else, transcending the human plane. A world where a fistful of blackberries is a more powerful weapon than a sword. Where humans shape-shift into animals and sprites, where promises of eternal loyalty are made, then broken in a heartbeat; where children are hurt, then saved and raised in the forest by benevolent strangers; where armies are defeated by venomous sheep and people are exiled over a lost game of chess; where people kindle kindness to one another across war lines and family feuds. A strange world where beauty and brutality coexist, a world savaged by its own strange sense of justice and saved by its own strange species of hope.
Carrying that world are sixteen exquisite color plates and two dozen black-and-white illustrations by Arthur Rackham (September 19, 1867–September 6, 1939), who lived through the First World War and died five days after the start of the second.
Thirteen years after he revolutionized the technology and economics of book art with his now-iconic Alice in Wonderland illustrations and six years before his hauntingly beautiful take on The Tempest, Rackham magnifies the transportive enchantment of the stories with his visual poetics of shape and strangeness.
Coursing through the stories is the recurring fantasy of mitigating the ills of human nature with the wide-brimmed benevolence of nature — again and again, humans transmogrify into other animals to find a foothold for justice, a touchstone of goodness and grace. (In the same era, across the Atlantic, the poetic naturalist John Burroughs was issuing his impassioned insistence that we need not escape into fantasy to have human nature salved and saved by nature and the artist Rockwell Kent was finding an antidote to violence in the wilderness, while his German peer Franz Marc was auguring the triumph of beauty over brutality in his staggering animal paintings across the war-torn hillsides of the French countryside.)
In one of his most lyrical passages, Stephens animates the protagonist of the first fairy tale:
Old age again overtook me. Weariness stole into my limbs, and anguish dozed into my mind. I went to my Ulster cave and dreamed my dream, and I changed into a hawk. I left the ground. The sweet air was my kingdom, and my bright eye stared on a hundred miles. I soared, I swooped; I hung, motionless as a living stone, over the abyss; I lived in joy and slept in peace, and had my fill of the sweetness of life.
For long, long years I was a hawk. I knew every hill and stream; every field and glen of Ireland. I knew the shape of cliffs and coasts, and how all places looked under the sun or moon… Then I grew old, and in my Ulster cave close to the sea I dreamed my dream, and in it I became a salmon. The green tides of ocean rose over me and my dream, so that I drowned in the sea and did not die, for I awoke in deep waters, and I was that which I dreamed. I had been a man, a stag, a boar, a bird, and now I was a fish. In all my changes I had joy and fulness of life. But in the water joy lay deeper, life pulsed deeper… How I flew through the soft element: how I joyed in the country where there is no harshness: in the element which upholds and gives way; which caresses and lets go, and will not let you fall. For man may stumble in a furrow; the stag tumble from a cliff; the hawk, wing-weary and beaten, with darkness around him and the storm behind, may dash his brains against a tree. But the home of the salmon is his delight, and the sea guards all her creatures.
Complement with these enchanting illustrations for Walter de la Mare’ fairy-poems by Rackham’s contemporary Dorothy Lathrop and the gifted teenage artist Virginia France Sterrett’s illustrations for old French fairy tales from the same era, then revisit the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s lyrical and lovely case for fairy tales and the importance of being scared and J.R.R. Tolkien on the psychology of fantasy.
Published March 19, 2022