Saturday, November 29, 2008

Book Review: Wanda Gág's works

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1938), Tales from Grimm (1936), and More Tales from Grimm (1947) by Wanda Gág

If I were forced to limit my library to a small core of books, I would choose the Bible (KJV), Shakespeare, Scott, Dickens, C. S. Lewis (the Narnia series), Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and the collected works of the Brothers Grimm. All except the last work were originally written in English and need no translator. I would definitely choose Wanda Gág as my translator for the Brothers Grimm. She illustrated and translated a number of the Grimm’s fairy tales.

Wanda Gág grew up in the German-speaking section of New Ulm, Minnesota. Her ancestors came from the very places in Germany where most of the Grimm’s tales were born. She has, in my opinion, not only the genius to illustrate the tales but also the right spirit to translate them. In her own words, she tells us what the fairy tales mean to her:

The magic of Märchen is among my earliest recollections. The dictionary definitions – tale, fable, legend – are all inadequate when I think of my little German Märchenbuch and what it held for me. Often, usually at twilight, some grown-up would say, “Sit down, Wanda-chen, and I’ll read you a Märchen.” Then, as I settled down in my rocker, ready to abandon myself with the utmost credulity to whatever I might hear, everything was changed, exalted. A tingling, anything-may-happen feeling flowed over me, and I had the sensation of being about to bite into a big juicy pear.

When, four years ago, I was in the midst of a Hansel and Gretel drawing, the old Märchen magic gripped me again and I felt I could not rest until I had expressed in pictures all that Märchen meant to me.

In order to be influenced as directly as possible by the real spirit of these stories, I read them in the original German. I had at that time no idea of writing my own text but I soon found that I wanted to do this also.

After choosing a group of stories, I made literal translations of them. Some lent themselves easily to this method and came out practically as fresh and lively as they were in the original. This was especially true of those in dialect, for, because of their simple language and many repetitions, they were clear enough for any child to understand. Others, which were smooth, warm and colorful in the original, came out thin, lifeless and clumsy. It seemed evident that in the case of the latter, only a free translation could convey the true flavor of the originals. I hoped it might be possible – and thought it worth trying – to carry over into the English some of their intimate me-to-you quality, and that comforting solidity which makes their magic more, rather, than less, believable.

The fairy world in these stories, though properly weird and strange, has a convincing, three-dimensional character. There is magic, wonder, sorcery, but no vague airy-fairyness about it. The German witches are not wispy wraiths flying in the air—they usually live in neat cottages and wear starched bonnets and spotless aprons. The bear in Snow White and Rose Red is only outwardly bewitched, for a rent in the fur reveals him as a full dressed, flesh-and-blood Prince underneath. The story of the spindle, shuttle and needle is more airy than most, but even here the supernatural agents are not ballet-skirted fairies with wands, but three plain work-aday objects. Aside from this, many of the stories are folk tales rather than fairy stories—and what could be more substantial than a peasant?
When Miss Gág says that the Grimm’s tales do not have a vague airy-fairyness about them, she articulates why I have always preferred the Grimm’s tales to the more modern fantasy stories. The European peasant’s faith is an incarnational faith. No Star Wars-Harry Potter nonsense for him. And the Grimm’s tales are tales for those who are children and peasants at heart.

My copy of More Tales from Grimm has the word, ‘discard’ stamped on the title page. Some modern library no longer wanted it. That speaks volumes about modern libraries and the modern world.V