The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Fairy Tale Tree

The Fairy Tale Tree

Creativity is at bottom the combinatorial work of memory and imagination. All of our impressions, influences, and experiences — every sight we have ever seen, every book read, every landscape walked, every love loved — become seeds for ideas we later combine and recombine, largely unconsciously, into creations we call our own. The most wondrous thing about these seeds is that, when they first fall into the fallow ground of the mind, we have no sense of what they will bloom into years, decades, and selves later, what alchemic cross-pollination will take place between them and other seeds in the dark underground of consciousness where we become who we are.

Rilke understood this when he contemplated the combinatorial nature of inspiration. Ada Lovelace understood it when she wrote of creativity as the work of an alert imagination that “seizes points in common, between subjects having no very apparent connexion, & hence seldom or never brought into juxtaposition” — something she embodied when she fused her childhood impression of a mechanical loom with her gift for mathematics to compose the world’s first computer program in a 65-page footnote.

Most artists understand this if they are honest about the building blocks of their originality.

As he dismantles the myth of originality in the altogether fantastic Faith, Hope and Carnage, Nick Cave looks back on his body of work as “primarily narrative songs using vivid imagery” and traces this sensibility to one particularly fertile seed planted when he was five — a 1961 Czech book of fairy tales he read and reread for years, into his teens when he first began making music.

(I am reminded of Einstein’s impassioned insistence that fairy tales are the mightiest fuel for the creative imagination.)

Full of brightly illustrated stories from around the world, The Fairy Tale Tree (public library) by Vladislav Stanovsky and Jan Vladislav dazzles with its vivid primary-color illustrations by the great Czech artist and sculptor Stanislav Kolíbal.

The first page of the book casts its promise as part poem and part magic spell — something strange and transcendent that reads like a Nick Cave song:

Beyond endless mountains, beyond endless rivers,
at the very remotest end of the earth
and whither no bird has ever yet flown,
there is a deep blue sea,
and in this sea there is a small green island,
and on this island is a stately tree,
all of gold with shapely branches, twelve in all,
and on each branch there is a nest,
and in each nest a nestful of eggs
— a nestful of eggs of clear crystal.

You’ve only to break the crystal shell,
And each has a fairy tale to tell.

From there, each chapter proceeds as an egg on a branch of the storytelling tree — a concept Cave realized only in hindsight anchors “Spinning Song” on his record Ghosteen. He used an illustration of a red devil from the book in the artwork of another record, and it was the image of a red devil that came to him one day a lifetime later that sparked an entirely new and unexpected creative practice — his series of bizarre and beautiful ceramic figurines.

Wild and wondrous, partway between a child’s drawing and a modernist painting, Kolíbal’s illustrations emanate his own early influences of Egyptian and Cycladic art yet rise from the page entirely original, full of uncommon vitality and vim — a pig with a cane, a mouse waltzing with a lobster, a wolf diving down a chimney, strange and joyful like the best of childhood.

Complement with J.R.R. Tolkien on the psychology of fairy tales, the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska on how fairy tales strengthen our capacity for powerful emotions, and these stunning century-old illustrations of Tibetan fairy tales by the artist who created Bambi, then revisit Nick Cave on creativity, its relationship to self-trust and faith, and the two pillars of a meaningful life.

Published January 14, 2024




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