Russian Fairy Tales: A New Firebird

The Tale of the Firebird – Gennady Spirin

translated by Tatiana Popova

Art Passions, the website, focuses primarily on late 19th century and Golden Age illustrators. However, I sometimes run across a contemporary children’s book that is both well-written and whose illustration I want to share. I’ve run into a few recently and I will try to review them here.

Such a sharable book is The Tale of the Firebird by Gennady Spirin.

In this version of The Firebird Tale, Spirin combines three stories – The Firebird, Baba Yaga, and Koshchei the Immortal. I have some reservations about mixing the stories because they are classics and, although there are variants, I’d rather have seen the three stories kept separate within one book. Whether he should have combined the stories or not, Spirin does it well. There are no questions left hanging.

This is a book to make children love books before ever learning to read. Each page is generously illustrated and the illustrations are exquisite, down to the page numbers.

Page numbers

The illustrations do not tell the story but beautifully make you wonder, “Oooh, what’s happening here?”

Ivan rides Yelena the Beautiful

The characters are gentle without being sentimental. I even find myself liking Baba Yaga:

Baba Yaga and her cat

and Koschei the Immortal seems more of a rogue than an evil adversary:

Koshchei the Immortal

As the spirit moves me, I’ll do a short review of the book here and share some of the pictures. You can list the reviews by selecting the “picture books” tag.

I bought and paid for this book myself. Reading level is Grades 2 through 5, but it’s the sort of book you read to younger children so often that they learn the words by heart. You can find The Firebird at Amazon.

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Damsels In Distress: Launcelot and Guenevere

Guinevere A'Maying by John Collier

Guinevere A'Maying by John Collier

Bulfinch returned; now he was wearing medieval jousting armor instead of his banker’s wools. He explained to me the story of how Sir Launcelot remained the queen’s lover, his forswearing after his failed quest for the Sangreal notwithstanding.

Guinevere (or La Belle Iseult) by William Morris:

Guinevere (or La Belle Iseult) by William Morris:

He intimated that there had been a plot instigated against him by the rumors of Mordred and his half-brother Sir Agrivaine, to entrap Launcelot while he was with the queen.

Their last hour, Florence Harrison

It was their last hour - Emma Florence Harrison, illustration to Guinevere by Tennyson

Launcelot escaped but the queen was caught and put to trial and then sentenced to burn for her crime. He then told of how Guenever was rescued. Placing one leg upon a stone he declaimed:

Then when Sir Launcelot had thus done, and slain and put to flight all that would withstand him, then he rode straight unto Dame Guenever, and made a kirtle and a gown to be cast upon her; and then he made her to be set behind him, and prayed her to be of good cheer. Wit you well the queen was glad that she was escaped from the death. And then she thanked God and Sir Launcelot; and so he rode his way with the queen, as the French book saith, unto Joyous Gard, and there he kept her as a noble knight should do; and many great lords and some kings sent Sir Launcelot many good knights, and many noble knights drew unto Sir Launcelot.

Lancelot in the Queen's Chamber by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lancelot in the Queen's Chamber by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This was not, of course, the end of the story. But that was all Bulfinch had for me that day. I spun around three times to find myself back in my own time. So putting on my running shoes with dove wings, I began to write this report.


Image Credits: Victorian and Preraphaelite Art, Emma Florence Harrison

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Damsels in Distress: How to Slay a Monster

Being part II of our series on….

Damsels in Distress: The Myth of Perseus and Andromeda

Rapunzel Singing in the Tower by Frank Cadogan Cowper

Rapunzel Singing in the Tower by Frank Cadogan Cowper

And by “agreed,” I meant he walked around a tree, returning immediately wearing a pair of steampunk running shoes with pigeon wings glued on them. Staring at me in confused bemusement, he tossed what appeared to be a stone carving of Godzilla, which landed with a “thunk” at my feet. The creature stared at me as if I were Tokyo.

“Perseus, continuing his flight, arrived at the country of the Etheopians” Bulfinch began, apparently from the middle of the story. He went on to relate how Perseus, looking down while returning from his battle with the Gorgon Medusa, saw far below the small and frail figure of Andromeda chained to a rock.

Perseus and Andromeda

The Rock of Doom by Edward Burne-Jones

Flying down, he asked her why she had been chained there. Out of modesty, she said nothing to the hero at first, but for fear that he would judge her wrongly, she related the tale of how her mother Queen Cassiopeia had, in her pride, boastfully compared her beauty to that of the Sea-Nymphs. In their anger, the nymphs sent a great serpent to ravage the coast of her country. To free themselves from terror, King Cepheus was directed by the Oracle to chain Andromeda, his virgin daughter, to the rock in sacrifice to that monster.

Perseus Slays Medusa by Aubrey Beardsley

Perseus Slays Medusa by Aubrey Beardsley

Just as she was finishing her story, the serpent raised its head out of the water and with great haste moved near to claim his prize. As luck would have it, Perseus was no stranger to great deeds, having defeated the Gorgon Medusa by beheading her. The hero sprang into the air with Mercury’s winged sandals, and landing on the monster’s back plunged his sword again and again into its neck. The monster retreated into the depths of the sea, then broke through the surface and appeared to soar in the air. Springing off the monster’s back, but with his wings now wet he had to wait for it upon a rock. Perseus nimbly evaded its attacks. Weakened by the failure of its repeated attacks, the monster lay still, floating on the waves, its breathing labored. As it passed, Perseus delivered a final death stroke, thus liberating the Etheopeans from the menace they had so long endured. Gratefully, the king and queen granted Perseus’ request to marry Andromeda.

“What about the Sea-nymphs?” I asked Bulfinch, “Weren’t they still angry?”

“Don’t know” he said wandering back into the forest.

Chapel of the Lists by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Chapel of the Lists by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I suppose I should have left then, as there seemed little point to any of this, but something told me I was dressed in Victorian attire for a reason. I fumbled for my pocket watch just in case this strange place had any appointments to get to–perhaps a tea party–a Jane Austen scenario–even a Gothic novel. As it turned out, it was a medieval one.

To be continued….


Image credits:  Victorian and Preraphaelite Art, Aubrey Beardsley

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Damsels in Distress: Psyche and Cupid

Being Part One of our series on:

Damsels in Distress

Chivalry by Frank Dicksee

"Chivalry" by Frank Dicksee

Having wandered into the forest, I had sufficiently lost sight of my origins to encounter a strange man who did not seem to be of this place or time.  After saluting me with one raised hand, he then grabbed me by the lapel of my tweed frock coat and began to recite the tale of Cupid and Psyche from memory:  “Psyche teneris et herbosis locis in ipso toro roscidi…”None of which was of much use to me as my Latin is limited to a few inaccurate aphorisms from Cicero, half-remembered catechisms, and assorted classical history references (veni, vidi, vici, etc). Sensing my difficulty, Bulfinch (for that was the man’s name) then switched to his native New England dialect and began the tale of Psyche, a lady who as we all know, had the misfortune of vexing Venus.

Psyche and Cupid

Cupid and Psyche by Edward Burne-Jones

Cupid Delivering Psyche by Eward Burne-Jones

The aforementioned Psyche had been gifted with a great misfortune–possessing great beauty, a beauty so great that no poet knew of any language on this world with words to describe it satisfactorily.

Psyche became so renowned for her beauty that the temples of the Goddess of Beauty herself were soon neglected; and this evoked the ire of that goddess. So Venus asked her son Cupid to place a curse on Psyche by pouring water from her bitter fountains of Love on her mortal lips.

Cupid was, as usual, invisible as he leaned over Psyche in obedience to his mother’s instructions. But as he did so, she suddenly woke and opened her eyes,  appearing to look directly into his.  This so startled Cupid that he accidentally pricked himself with one of his own arrows; and so it was that the son of the goddess fell in love with the most beautiful of mortal maidens.  In his love, he spared her the full bitterness of Venus’ punishment by pouring sweet water from his mother’s other fountain on her golden locks.

Alas, the bitter water had had its effect.  Despite her beauty, Psyche remained unmarried.  No man in the kingdom dared  posses this most beautiful of women.  At Cupid’s request, Apollo sent an oracle to Psyche’s father, instructing him to prepare his daughter for marriage.

Her father, the King, asked the Oracle about the fate of his daughter.  The Oracle revealed that their most beautiful daughter was destined to marry a monster.   The king was to send Psyche to a desolate mountain, where an ugly monster would meet her and take her for his wife.  The king and his queen were distraught and thought to shield their daughter from this fate, but were fearful of angering the gods.  Broken-hearted, Psyche’s father obeyed.

But Psyche very bravely understood that she had somehow incurred the wrath of the goddess.  Standing bravely alone on a rock,  she awaited her fate when a warm and gentle wind began to stir.  Cupid had sent  Zephyr, the West Wind, to bring his beloved out of her country and into his palace. There he bestowed upon her everything a princess could desire, except one thing: She must never look upon him.  Each night she slept with her new husband, not knowing who he was or what he looked like.

Psyche’s  life would get somewhat more complicated after that, including a trip to Hell wherein she places a bit of Proserpine’s beauty into a box.  She had opened the box to borrow some of this beauty only to find it empty and fell into a deep sleep, for the only contents of the box were, in fact, Sleep.

Psyche Opening the Golden Box by John William Waterhouse

"Psyche Opening the Golden Box" by John William Waterhouse

Indeed, this particular damsel needed some additional saving after her initial one. I said as much to Bulfinch, who agreed.  So he made up for this imperfection by telling me another story.

(to be continued)


* Apuleius, Metamorphoses, Book V (1)

Image Credits: Victorian and Pre-raphaelite Art Prints

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Fairies Prefer to Fly

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens: Fallen Leaf, Arthur Rackham.

"There is almost nothing that has such a keen sense of fun as a fallen leaf" from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens: Fallen Leaf, Arthur Rackham.

We were reviewing the various Arthur Rackham resources in our library (we like to call it that despite its disorganized state) in search of a particular image. The various fairies looked up over the pages to see if they could help. This being winter (and there had been snow), we were surprised that there were still leaves that could be blown.

Exquisite Fairy Dancing by Arthur Rackham

"Exquisite Fairy Dancing " from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens: Arthur Rackham.

But fairies are nothing if not resourceful and prefer flight to other means of transportation even when they are feeling “dancey.”

A Fairy, Arthur Rackham

A Fairy, Arthur Rackham

At any rate, all the music, dancing and urging towards flight forced us to find the best means of keeping them from causing mayhem or tying up the cats! So we thought that postcards would be a good means of getting the fairies involved in better things than this usual mischief.

Puck and a Fairy (from A Midsummer Night's Dream) by Arthur Rackham

If you need fairies to help you send messages to fellow mortals via postcards, you will find them here.

Image sources: Arthur Rackham

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Art Passions Christmas Tree Attracts Stories

It was the first freezing day of the season as temperatures dropped below the point where one could still debate on whether or not to wear gloves outdoors. It was a Noble Fir that caught our eye, shaken and bundled and tied, that made its way back home. The cats took an immediate fancy to it (of course) but it had to stand in water overnight to acclimate before we dared decide which of various years’ decorations were worthy of it.

The morning found several stories waiting to be told.

The three kings

The three kings

The three kings showed up with stern expressions and a Gothic manner, rather unusual for oriental gentlemen. The gifts seemed to have turned military as a testament to these troubled days. One can’t help but smile at their sincerity.

Mother Goose flying in with jester and military escort

Mother Goose flying in with staff jester and military escort

Not to be outdone, Mother Goose enlisted her own martial escort and promptly took charge of her sector of the tree. The presence of her jester is certain to provide some interesting diversions during the anticipated arboreal diplomatic squabbles.

The mouse prince and his party

The mouse prince and his party

The Mouse Prince and his party appeared with alacrity! They went about poking the other denizens of the tree until some folks objected strenuously enough to find them their own corner. The cats are certainly watching this crew to make certain there will be no further trouble.

The Dormice, Hunting Fox and Skiing Bear

The Dormice made sure no one would bother them by bringing their friends Hunting Fox and Skiing Bear. Trouble tried to point out the inherent irony in a fox wearing fox hunting attire but the others shooshed him.

Cloisonnee birdhouses

Cloisonné Birdhouses

None of the other proceedings bothered the cats more than the potential for birds to entertain them. The Cloisonné Birdhouses would seem to indicate particularly tiny birds, and we had never up to now seen birds flying indoors, but these are minor matters.

Dancer in Tulle

Dancer in Tulle

Finally (and as usual), grownups came to spoil the fun. The cats voluntarily went to various scratching posts in a valiant effort or feigned disinterest, but we know better.

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Arabian Nights: Curious Coincidences and Obscenities

The Sultan and Scheherazade, Arabian Nights - Kay Nielsen

The Sultan and Scheherazade, Arabian Nights - Kay Nielsen

Of Fairy Tales and Folklore

We should not be surprised that the transliterator of Cinderella and Snow White, and the transliterator of Aladin and Ali Baba, were friends. Working for the same boss in separate cultural offices, Charles Perrault and Antoine Galland carved out different facets of a literary niche that has endured across centuries, not unlike the stories they retold. Both profoundly influenced later authors.

In 1695, at the age of 67, Charles Perrault lost his job as Secretary to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres. With plenty of time on his hands, he embarked on a project to bring the stories he had heard since childhood into printed form, and published his Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals in the same year.

Arabian Nights : Fisherman and the Genie, Maxfield Parrish

Arabian Nights : Fisherman and the Genie, Maxfield Parrish

When Scheherazade Met Sinbad

The Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres where Perrault had worked was under the administrative control of Loius XIV’s finance minster, Jean Baptise Colbert. During that period, another of Colbert’s employees, Antoine Galland, was occupied with preparations for a compendium of Middle Eastern Literature, the Bibliothèque Oriental. In this library was a manuscript of a cycle of stories that Galland translated and published with the name The Tale of Sinbad the Sailor. Partly due to the popularity of his friend’s work on fairy tales, Sinbad became immediately popular as well. Perrault himself then encouraged him to complete a more ambitious project, a translation of a manuscript that Galland had collected in Instanbul called “Alf Laylah wa Laylah” or The Thousand and One Nights.

Curiously, of all the most popular stories in that collection, only the framing tale of Scheherazade was part of that manuscript. The Sinbad tales came from a separate source, but those stories that came to be called in English “Aladdin, or the Wonderful Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” were drawn directly from oral tradition: A Maronite Christian from Allepo in Syria visited Galland in Paris and narrated those stories to him from memory.

Aladdin and the Genie of the Ring - Virginia Frances Sterrett

Aladdin and the Genie of the Ring - Virginia Frances Sterrett

The Arabian Nights in England

Of the two contemporary authors, Gallard had traveled more extensively than Perrault, though less so than another well-traveled translator of the Thousand and One Nights, Sir Richard Francis Burton. Burton’s biography is a tale on its own; Burton began his travels as an officer in the army of the British East India Company, spending time in Afghanistan and India and becoming familiar with the local cultures. He then took leave to work for the Royal Geographic Society, disguising himself as an Arab and going on a pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the few non-Muslims who ever managed to do so. Returning to India to rejoin his regiment, he joined instead the political department of the India Company and was again engaged by the Geographic Society to explore the coasts of Arabia and East Africa. He eventually explored inland as far as Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria while seeking the true source of the Nile River. His notes became important sources of information for later central African expeditions.

Upon his return to England in 1861 (at the age of 40), Burton entered the British Foreign Service for whom he served as ambassador in various locations in India and the Middle East. Even while doing that, he also made time to co-found the Anthropological Society of London. He was eventually granted a knighthood by Queen Victoria in 1886.

Layla - from Edmund Dulac's Picture Book for the Red Cross

Layla - from Edmund Dulac's Picture Book for the Red Cross

Racy Racism in Victorian England

It was during this latter period of his life that Burton turned to the translation of Oriental classics, most notably the first English translation of the Kama Sutra and the unexpurgated version of our topic, The Thousand Nights and One Night. Burton’s unashamedly sexual version was shocking to his Victorian contemporaries:

They walked under the very lattice and advanced a little way into the garden till they came to a jetting fountain middlemost a great basin of water; then they stripped off their clothes and behold, ten of them were women, concubines of the King, and the other ten were white slaves. Then they all paired off, each with each: but the Queen, who was left alone, presently cried out in a loud voice, “Here to me, O my lord Saeed!” and then sprang with a drop leap from one of the trees a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes which showed the whites, a truly hideous sight. He walked boldly up to her and threw his arms round her neck while she embraced him as warmly; then he bussed her and winding his legs round hers, as a button loop clasps a button, he threw her and enjoyed her.

Asenath - from Edmund Dulac's Picture Book for the Red Cross

Asenath - from Edmund Dulac's Picture Book for the Red Cross

This version did not receive the acclaim in Victorian England that Burton might have wished. Criticized as pornography by some critics while admired by others, it was never as popular as Galland’s original translation. But it did represent the most complete version of the stories in English up to that point, and captured to the fullest extent the exotic Orientalism that he encountered in his travels.

Despite later retellings and translations, it’s interesting to see the durability of the original Arabian Nights concept of Galland’s translation. The intertwining of the frame tale and stories within stories matches the mood of exotic orientalism that the tales provide us. These are not all fairy tales. Many of the stories are simple romances while the Sinbad voyages are too epic in scope to simply be called a fairy tale, but they all maintain the same sense of the exotic.  But underneath the exoticism is a realization of the truest spirit of the folktale; that popular stories can be adapted to any generation of readers with the right storyteller.

Image credits: Arabian Nights

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