Santa was quite generous this year, and brought me some incredible books to add to my collection. My favourite at the moment is a 2008 Calla hardback edition of Kay Nielsen’s classic EAST OF THE SUN, WEST OF THE MOON [ Old Tales From The North].
Originally published in the UK in 1913, this edition is a reproduction of the 1920 US original, produced by the George H.Doran Company.
Kay Nielsen was a Danish illustrator whose career reached its peak in the early part of the 20th century, in the period known as the golden age of illustration. Along with Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac, he helped popularise the ‘gift book’ market, marrying retelling of classic folk tales with cutting edge illustration. His work had an edginess, a daring, which very few illustrators today are allowed. He also pushed the envelope from a technological viewpoint, with the illustrations for this book utilising the new four colour process rather than the more limited 3 colour employed by his contemporaries.
I stayed up most of the night devouring the stories, written by Gudrun Thorne-Thomsen, partly because I’m a readaholic but also because I’m doing research for three anthologies of my own. The story that caught my attention here was THE GIANT WHOSE HEART WAS OUTSIDE HIS BODY. It has parallels with the original folktale that Stravinsky’s ballet THE FIREBIRD is based on as well as the libretto that mashes several Russian stories together. The original Russian fable that inspired the ballet is called Grey Wolf and the Firebird. Like the Kay Nielsen story it features a young prince whose family considers him dumb yet who saves the day, and the princess. Both stories have magical wolves with a voracious appetite for horses, journeys across the archetypal dark forest and quests in search of magical objects.
Like Kaschei in the ballet, the giant in the story turns trespassers in his domain to stone. He also keeps his heart – his life-force – hidden outside his body for safe keeping. And just as in the ballet, it takes a brave prince to find it and destroy it.
East of the Sun And West of the Moon is considered Nielsen’s masterpiece. It was his second book, following on from In Powder and Crinoline, published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton in 1913. World War I interrupted his publishing career; he focused on designing stage sets for the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. His productions included lauded stagings of Aladdin and The Tempest. In 1924, he returned to publishing with a collection of Andersen’s Fairy Tales but, with shortages still acute in most of Europe, the book and subsequent productions were nowhere as lavish as East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
In the late 1930s, Nielsen and his theatre colleague Johannes Paulsen were invited to stage a Max Reinhardt production at the Hollywood Bowl. In California, Nielsen was introduced to Walt Disney who was very much impressed by his work and the ease with which he produced it.
Nielsen was hired on the spot. He devised the conceptual art for two sequences in fantasia: the Ave Maria and Night on Bald Mountain. After Fantasia, he set to work on The Little Mermaid, which was to be part of a film celebrating the work of Hans Christian Andersen. The project was shelved but Nielsen’s work remained in the Disney vaults and was used for the 1989 production of The Little Mermaid.
Nielsen died in penury in 1957, his past glories long forgotten by most, the only work available being murals in local schools. Fantasy in children’s books went out of style after World War II, to be replaced by gritty realism. In the last years of their lives, Nielsen and his wife Ulla, had to rely on the financial support of friends and neighbours without whom they would not have survived.
In the 1970s, the works of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin revived interest in fantasy. A book about Nielsen was published, sparking interest in his work. Its success prompted Nielsen’s friends and former neighbours to come forward with paintings they had held in trust for him. Among them were a set of illustrations for an aborted version of 1001 Nights. Ulla had given them to a friend, Hildegard Flanner, because no gallery or museum wanted them.
Published in The Unknown Paintings of Kay Nielsen, they helped re-establish his name with the public. Today he is quoted as an inspiration by many succesful illustrators. First editions of his work, which no one would touch in the last years of his life, fetch as much as £4000 apiece. I can hear the trolls in the enchanted forest laughing their socks off…