Stunning Century-Old Illustrations of Tibetan Fairy Tales from the Artist Who Created Bambi
By Maria Popova
We spend our lives yearning for three things above all else: love, meaning, and magic — all else is a compound of these building blocks. Of the them, the third is both the most elusive and the most readily available in the daily landscape of life, if only we know how to look.
In the final year of his twenties, two decades before he created the beloved Bambi character for Disney, the artist and naturalist Maurice “Jake” Day (July 2, 1892–May 17, 1983) lent his time and talent to an unusual project — illustrating a collection of Tibetan magic tales, resinous with ancient wisdom on the most elemental aspects of living: the meaning of wisdom, the measure of kindness, the yearning for transformation, the cost of cruelty and arrogance, how to love and how to live with our human fallibility.
Selected and retold by the American author Eleanore Myers Jewett, Wonder Tales from Tibet (public library | public domain) appeared in 1922, collecting “tales of wonder and magic” that had traveled orally from India to Tibet centuries earlier, then continued their migration to become “as familiar to Kalmuck and Mongolian children as St. George and his dragons are to us.” When European travelers first reached Tibet, these wonder-tales captured their imagination and followed them home, until in 1866 a German scholar published a pamphlet of the stories. They were eventually translated into English and made their way to the young Jewett in New York. When she told the tales to a small group of local boys and girls “one hot, happy summer,” she was moved by the lively enchantment the tales cast upon the children and set out to make that enchantment available to every child. She reflects:
The element of repetition, the distinctly human characters, the atmosphere of another land and strange people, and the romance of quest these things give to the Wonder Tales from Tibet the appeal to the childhood of all times and all races, which is their reason for having lived so long and traveled so far.
While Day’s soulful paintings are entirely original and unmistakably his own, he was working in a golden age of illustration that shared a certain sensibility in depicting the magical, the fantastical, and the numinous — one that included Arthur Rackham’s whimsical take on classic Irish fairy tales, Dorothy Lathrop’s poetic dreamscapes, and Virginia Frances Sterrett’s illustrations for old French fairy tales.
Much of the tales’ enchantment comes from evocative depictions of nature and what ecologist David Abram has termed the more-than-human world — a world that is not supernatural but supranatural. In one of the tales, Jewett writes:
At length, turning a corner, [the Prince] came upon the fountain sparkling in the sun. Crystal clear it was and very beautiful, and beside it was a marble bench looking cool and restful. The Prince sank down upon it, for he felt suddenly very weary, but scarcely had he seated himself before the sunlight disappeared and a strange half darkness covered him. The sound of the splashing water grew louder, but it was very pleasant to hear, and mingled with it was a whispering and pattering as of small voices and tiny feet, and a brushing as of garments against the bushes. He looked around him and then stood up the better to see. From behind every flower and bush danced forth a little form, shimmery and indistinct but beautiful beyond belief.
Over and over, these encounters with nature hold up a mirror to human nature. The wisdom of the tales lies in what they make of the reflection. This, too, may be the supreme wisdom of living.
Published May 11, 2023