White as Milk, Red as Blood
Adding another layer of meaning:
Willow Dawson on illustrating the tales
“The relationship between text and image is a finely tuned marriage”
Fairy tale books are one of the few places where we still see illustrations for adults and yet I would argue that much of the focus (certainly in North America) is on mirroring the text. In other words, the images repeat the text without adding much (if anything at all) to the stories.
My background is in graphic novels. And in graphic novels we have a saying, “Never describe what you’ve drawn.” You would never draw your character lacing up their shoes and have them say, “I am lacing up my shoes.” This would bore readers. The relationship between text and image in graphic novels is a finely tuned marriage. Separated, neither tells a complete story but together they combine to create a whole that can be many layered and quite beautiful.
So I want to talk for a minute about the choices we made not just in terms of story selection, but also the direction taken with the illustrations. Then I will get into the specifics of each story.
As I began to read about the re-discovery of Schönwerth tales, I learned that they had never been Disneyfied (or Grimm-ified, for that matter). They had never been edited or revised or toned down. They were raw and bloody and honest. I was also very intrigued by the fact that not all of the heroes were men. There were female heroines, too.
“The tales point a finger at the things done to women that must be fixed”
As a woman I’ve certainly had my fair share of unwanted (sometimes “playful” sometimes dangerous) attention from men. I’ve also lived with a life-threatening illness and came close to death on several occasions. And I am a mother. I wanted to explore stories that didn’t shy away from violence and death, from the harshness and fragility of life, from gender roles expectations. The themes we singled out were: shapeshifting, transformation and disguises; role reversal and fluidity; gender; sex, violence and death; rawness and vulgarity.
I first proposed this book in 2012, before #blacklivesmatter, before Donald Trump’s white America, and before the #metoo movement. But we all felt the resistance bubbling up to the surface and now I feel as sure as ever about the stories we selected and the way we’ve interpreted them. This book is not intended to be a feminist manifesto, but it does attempt to point a finger at some of the bad things that have been with us from the beginning of time that still need to be fixed.
As you read my notes (below) on the more specific themes I saw emerge from each tale I hope you’ll be able to see how we carefully preserved the stories themselves as they were recorded by Von Schönwerth, while simultaneously, through illustration, have tried to make them more relevant to people today. In the oral tradition the storyteller puts the face on the tale. They would change little details here and there to make the tale resonate better with the person or people they were telling to. In our book, the illustrations put the face on the tale.
Themes: Role reversal, redistribution of power
Here, the girl saves the Prince by turning herself into water and cutting them both out of the witch’s belly. Each transformation is deceiving in it’s sharpness, hardness, deadliness (most often male qualities): a church with a firebrand at the pulpit, a beautiful rose surrounded by thorns, water hiding a deadly sword. In both illustrations I wanted to emphasize the element of transformation and fluidity with the hair turning into water and back again. From liquid to solid. Hard and soft.
Themes: Sexual assault, murder, loss and grief
Related tales: The Six Swans, The Wild Swans, The Seven Ravens
In my research I read that milk symbolizes the mother, eternal life, fertility, purity, kindness, love, wholesomeness and nature. It was super important to me that the women in this book not all be light skinned, and there was enough ambiguity in how the character is described in this tale to give her darker skin, so I did. Jen suggested that her hair be white and I liked the way it looked and we went with it. But sometimes things take on more meaning as time passes and that is most certainly the case here.
When I started this book I was pregnant with my first child; my second is now two-years-old. So after four years of motherhood and many, many new white hairs I now see how much more meaningful white hair on this young mother is — especially in one who has endured years of torture and grief in silence. This isn’t just a tale of purity and innocence and wholesomeness and enduring love, it’s a story about pain and loss and the grief of violence and trauma.
The trauma starts in childhood where she is forced to suck the little finger of her captor. Imagine that if you’re a small child and your captor comes to your bedroom at night you might not know that you are not in fact sucking a finger, but an erect penis. I read and reread this odd addition to the story, which at first seemed out of place, only to realize it’s quite possibly the beginning of the abuse and probably the reason she does endure the years of silence and violence. Most child victims don’t come forward until they’re much older — in their 30’s and beyond.
“Beside her bed he saw the three flowers, still in full bloom. He shook his head, because the forest maiden had confided in him that as long as they did not wither and fade, the flowers were a symbol of his wife’s innocence and devotion.” But they are not simply a measure of her innocence and devotion or her beauty, because in this story they actually keep her alive for seven years of brutal torture and silence at the hands of jealous women.
I did a tonne of research to find the right flowers for each of the stories. I looked at what flowers grow in Germany, then found the ones that best fit the descriptions in each of the tales (where they aren’t named), and which ones have symbolism that best matches the tale or the tone / mood of the tale in question.
In this case the flowers are described as having “magnificent colours” and the blossoms having a “sweet scent.” Unfortunately, anemones don’t have much scent at all (they are more musky than sweet) but they are colourful and win out in the symbolism department. Anemonies symbolize: protection against evil and ill wishes, the death of a loved one or the loss of them to someone else, bad luck or ill omens. The Greeks believed anemones came from Venus’s tears when she was weeping for Adonis. “While weeping for his death, Aphrodite swore he will live for ever and the beautiful flower Anemone, is born out of her tears.” “The Chinese call it the Flower of Death. In some European countries it is looked on by the peasants as a flower of ill omen.” The grey-blue colour I chose for the leaves is intended to mirror the roof of the hut, described as looking like matted grey hair.
Theme: Moon as protector
Shelley Tanake (translator) and I both loved the element of longing and sadness in this story of a love triangle between a celestial being, a girl and a boy with bad intentions. No amount of love or longing on the part of the moon can save her, though the moon tries, night after night and manages to protect her, at least until her wedding.
Themes: Mer-women, shapeshifting, transformation, disguises
Sexual assault, abusive partners, entrapment, oppression
As the women bathe in the lake they begin to take on the characteristics of lake dwellers. The story talks about them having scales “upon inspection” so instead of drawing the women from head to toe in pretty dresses I focused on what we see under the dresses. The water is the skirt hiding the “ugliness”, the scales are only visible from beneath.
Shelley said that when she read the original German it was clear to her that it was talking about sexual assault. When she translated, she purposefully chose language to make that clear: “They saw bridegrooms dragging their wives around by the hair. They saw beating and thrusting that went on as long as the men pleased. And when it was over the men ran away.”
In the Singing Bones podcast, Clare Testoni interviews playwright Finn O’Branagáin about “The Little Mermaid” and Selkie mythology. As a child she says she thought “The Little Mermaid” was a romantic story of love but when she grew up and reread it she realized it’s a story about oppression and entrapment and abuse.
In “Fishwomen”, we loved the fact that the ending is ambiguous. It’s not clear whether the giant is their protector or has just consumed them. The great temptation when working with fairytales or old stories from the oral tradition is to tidy up those uncertainties. But Shelley purposefully left them open to interpretation because we believe the ambiguity in these tales more accurately parallels real life today. The things we talk about and the things we do not.
In this case, I ask readers to think about domestic violence. How an abuser is violent to you one day, and the next turns that violence outward, acting almost as protector. But consider that that protective element too often comes with a price, invisible to outsiders. What looks chivalrous to the outsider is just another way of asserting power and control over the victim. Listen to the Real Crime Profile podcast to understand more about this behaviour and how it relates to domestic violence, stalking and homicide.
It was important to me that the giant looked menacing: like some kind of invasive species with lots of sharp teeth, like a lamprey or a shark. Jen suggested we draw the inside of the mouth, looking out. In the tale, the women are always referred to in the third person but we wanted to force readers to have to sit uncomfortably in their shoes for a minute. Here we experience the stillness in the moments that follow the storm. The flames have been put out but the water is black and still, like ink or tar.
Themes: Dualities of motherhood, woman shaming
“During the Middle Ages, children born with physical defects or behavioural abnormalities were often viewed as evil or the product of supernatural forces. It was believed that changelings were infants exchanged in the still of the night by devils or goblins who removed the real child and left the changeling in its place. To view the child as potentially evil, dangerous, or worthless, rationalizes the desire to eliminate the burden or threat without guilt or remorse.
In the 4th century, the Christian emperor Valentinian declared that it was illegal for parents to fail to provide for their offspring. Thus by the Middle Ages infanticide was no longer condoned by either church or state in Europe. However, as a result of hard times and a high illegitimacy rate, infanticide was the most common crime in Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the end of the eighteenth century.”
Ravens and wolves share a symbiotic relationship, sometimes leading each other to food. Some indigenous hunters, especially in the North, tell of a special wing dip that Ravens do to indicate nearby food sources. But ravens also have another, darker, association: with humans in times of war. Because of the availability of fresh, open meat on the battlefield they will show up in the thousands, picking the meat off half-alive men. In many European countries, ravens are thought to be bringers of death, war, and destruction, or messengers between the dead and the living. They are strongly associated with bad luck, omens and witchcraft.
“To admit that you do not want children is to invite disapproval”
Motherhood is exhausting and challenging and complicated and yet every aspect of it is romanticized to the point that it silences all the varied experiences and responses that do not fit within the accepted narrative. To admit that you do not want children, you’ve been raped and cannot cope with raising the baby, you do not have the means to support a child, that you’re drowning in postpartum grief, that breast is not best for you, or that you are exhausted and angry and alone and resentful even though you are so lucky to have a tiny new human, is to invite lashing tongues and disapproval from friends, family and strangers. To admit any of these things, still to this day, is to admit defeat, failure. To be silenced. Outcast.
Here, the mother is painted with hatred so potent it infects her children, kills them. She is written off as the devil, herself, without there being any consideration for the complexities of her experience.
At the time this would have been a cautionary tale intended to educate women and girls about the evils of neglecting or killing babies, the onus entirely on them, never shared between parents. The archetype of the bad mother is so binary in its depiction with no room for any grey area, for any part of HER experience. My intention with the illustration was to show that if you scratch a little, maybe, just maybe there is more under the surface.
I wanted to give the mother a voice in the illustration, to carve out some space for some of the shades of grey many women feel when confronted by pregnancy and birth. “The flower most commonly associated with funeral services in the popular mind is the Lilly. Lilies are often interpreted as symbol of the innocence that has been restored to the soul of the departed. A white stargazer lily symbolizes sympathy and any type of white lily expresses majesty and purity.” Source:
Themes: Race and the notion of beauty, intelligence, etc
Shelley Tanake (translator) and I thought this tale was very interesting. At first glance this is the story of two sisters. The ugly one concentrates on the flax and sows a perfect crop in the valley. She is kind and leaves some flax each year for the Forest Maidens. Her linen is perfect. The beautiful sister spends more time concerned with her looks than taking care of her crop in the mountain. Her flax and her cloth suffer from neglect.
But there is a sinister subtext of racism eroding the sweetness of the beautiful meadow here. The Prince travels with a Moor and the Moor is depicted as a fool who is more than happy to take his castaways.
I wanted to show how human ugliness (racism, narcissism, stereotyping, etc) transforms beauty into decay. If you look closely at the first illustration, the flax harbours a variety of pests: a bollworm, a grasshopper, a tarnished plant bug, a variegated fritillary.
Themes: Transformation, shapeshifting Sexual awakening
Related tales: “Cinderella”
Sometimes the smallest, seemingly most insignificant detail in a story turns out to be the one most worth investigating. In this case, Ashfeathers is given a hazelnut branch by her father, which she carries to the well and then loses. Hazelnut branches (which look like coiling snakes, themselves) were once used to ward off snakes. And snakes (penises) like to disappear down damp holes (vaginas) and so it is that snakes came to represent sex or sexual blossoming. Think of the snake and eve.
The story of “Cinderella” or “Ashfeathers” can be seen as a story of transformation and sexual awakening. Each week Ashfeathers sheds her gown, just as a snake sheds its skin. I wanted to reflect this moulting, this ripening of fruit, in the illustration. The snake transforms into a hazelnut branch and loses its skin. The branch coils, the nuts ripen, ready to be consumed.
Themes: Shapeshifting, transformation Fertility, sexual awakening
Weasels, it turns out, were once associated with fertility. I would never have known this if Shelley Tanake (translator) had not done a little digging and discovered this very interesting fact. This is why the hen in this tale begins laying two eggs at a time after the weasel licks the first one clean. We can, of course, also extend this to the girl. At the beginning of the story she is a young girl in a meadow but by the end she is old enough (that is, sexually mature enough) to marry the prince.
I brought the fertility of the meadow to the castle to show the overlapping of her worlds – her life before and thereafter. And she holds the smoking egg shells at her blushing breasts to hint, more closely, at her own blossoming fertility.
Theme: Tumultuous love
Here, the memory or ghost of the father’s beautiful garden overlaps thick brambles, symbolizing the dark forest surrounding the torture castle. The peony, mostly white in the first illustration, becomes blood stained in the next. I also loved how the woman’s dress goes from black to grey to white. As the spell comes undone, the ink stain fades. The peony, mostly white in the first illustration, becomes blood stained in the next. Peonies symbolize honour, wealth and riches, romance with a particular focus on love between two strangers, beauty in all forms, bashfulness and shame.
White peonies are used to communicate regret when you have embarrassed yourself or someone else. In China and Japan peonies are linked to honour and respect, wealth and prosperity. It seemed to me that the story, at different points, contained almost all these elements, and so the peony seemed a perfect way to capture that.
Themes: Infanticide, woman shaming
Just as in “Drink up the Devil”, it would have been very difficult to care for children as a single mother at this time. I’m not sure how frequently this resulted in infanticide but I believe this is the subtext of this story. Again, I wanted to show the duality of the excitement of marriage and a new beginning mixed with the knowledge (whatever her feelings about it were) that she has killed. Wedding garlands in Germany were basically crowns made of myrtle leaf and flowers, worn around your head. The myrtle represents love. I wove sharp nails and fit needles in to show how she’s trying to erase something from her past but failing at keeping it hidden.
Themes: Shapeshifting, transformation
Female serial killer, murder, life, death, mother earth
Here is the story of a female serial killer who uses sex and femininity as her lure. My illustration research focused on modern-day serial killers and the overgrown places they often take their victims. I came across many images of old German mills set either deep in the wood or in the middle of beautiful wildflower meadows. These idyllic scenes of isolation sometimes hide more sinister memories.
In the first illustration, the window is filled with very tall foliage, choking any kind of visibility or hope for escape. At the same time, nature reaches into the room, almost as a warning. In one sense, life and death are cyclical. You can’t have one without the other. And I wanted to show that in the blood flowers in the next illustration: how death returns a body to the soil. The soil feeds the flowers that feed the insects that feed small animals, that feed carnivores, and the earth that drinks it all back up again.
Mother Earth — the great abductor, the most prolific serial killer of all. I realize this is a very alarming sentence but since we are also talking about Christianity versus Paganism here, I believe the notion of women as witches and killers, and female sexuality being associated with the devil in the Christian perspective, once you strip this construct of religion and return it to science, it really just becomes about the cyclical nature of life and death.
Themes: Shapeshifting, transformation, entrapment
Again, we have another mermaid story that involves entrapment. Shelley and I loved so many parts of this tale. The story moves from water to land; it crosses two generations and involves a debt that must be paid. And we loved the transformation elements: the animals give the boy the power to assume their shapes, the boy turns into a hawk to win his love’s hand, but she is transformed into a dragon at the end by the mermaid.
The illustration shows a man’s hand reaching for a blue fishing line, but he can’t quite grab it. The line takes on the appearance of water as it ripples through the spreads, turning from blue to purple to the red thread that the middle sister ties to her finger to win the boy as her husband.
Theme: Role reversal
I love how the heroine travels through night and day with the moon and the sun, only to find her love trapped, once again, by a witch. I have to admit thinking, the fact that he leaves her at the beginning with the promise to return, kind of made me wonder whether he was just a loose-hearted Lothario, moving from one woman to another. That would certainly explain why he seems to have a penchant for getting ensnared by witches.
I really loved the mention of the rot in the stump that the father trips over at the beginning, and wanted to carry that through into the illustration. They love each other but something (maybe his loose morals) festers away under the surface.
Themes: Racism, colonialism, Indigenous people
Similar tales: “Sleeping Beauty”, “Little Briar Rose”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”,
Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty,” the Grimms’ “Little Briar-Rose” and von Schönwerth’s “The Three Giants” all feature a sleeping princess in a bewitched castle, but von Schönwerth’s version tells it from a different perspective, from that of the prince-to-be: a pilgrim, wandering with his poor family after a journey to the Holy Land. The tale we have included here doesn’t mention a wall of thorns, but I included this detail in the art to reference the versions we are familiar with today.
Clare Testoni on the Singing Bones podcast says Giants are our “fears and foes made large.” She interviews Jeffrey Jay Fowler about his interpretation of “Jack and the Beanstalk”, which is that it is a tale of British colonialism.
“I wanted to leave the readers face to face with an inconvenient reality”
In our story the giants want to rid the princess of her possessions (and more). I think we hear this same, very simplified, racist messaging repeated against marginalized people all the time. Mexican immigrants in the US, Blacks and African Americans, Muslims, First Nations and Native Americans, Roma / Irish Traveller / Gypsies... In fact non-white people are often stigmatized as thieves, drug addicts, thugs, rapists, murderers, good-for-nothing, or lowlife.
Is it possible that our giants are a people displaced by the Kingdom, exiled without land rights, food, and other basics? lt’s hard not to draw comparisons to the history of colonialism and racism that affected Indigenous peoples here in Canada and around the world. If you look at it from this perspective the story takes on new meaning. Now we are confronted by the possibility that giants are a racist depiction of Indigenous peoples and the story a vessel to justify their eradication and the extinction of their cultural heritages. This is by no means the main thread in the story but I wanted to leave the readers face to face with this inconvenient reality.
The colour of their skin may be different but just like you or I, those giants are made of bone and blood, as evidenced by the flesh fly, who sees no difference.
Themes: Shapeshifting, transformation on artist
While working on this book the podcast “Dirty John” came out and I couldn’t help but draw parallels. “Devil Red Beard” is the story of a conman latching on to a beautiful, rich farm girl. She is wooed by his tales of grandeur and importance and doesn’t see the signs until others begin to point them out to her. Just like with Debra Newell, when she challenges him, he is scarred for life.
The kingfisher bird is an interesting choice in terms of animal symbolism. “The kingfisher is the promise of abundance, prosperity and love about to unfold.”
It doesn’t necessarily imply trickery but they do wear a beautiful teal and orange coat and legend says that they were once dull grey until released from Noah’s Arc whereupon it flew to the sun and was burnt, taking on the orange of fire and the blue of sky.
I really, really wanted to draw the fire beard but I also wanted to reference the bird and the coat he wears. This time I draw your attention to the drop-cap: the green coat around a fiery eye.
Themes: Role reversal, transformation, cleverness
Lemons symbolize bitterness and disappointment but Christians apparently linked the fruit to fidelity. And the Fit tree, referred to as “the straight and narrow” is a symbol of honesty, truth and forthrightness. All of these messages seem fitting for this tale and I initially played with a lot of different symbolism.
In the end, I decided to focus on the hero. The youngest sister sees past his disguise, past the forbidding symbolism of the crow, past the feathers to the man inside. He gives her the chance to save herself, with a feather, but it’s her cleverness that breaks the spell he is under in the end. She senses his honesty and that she can trust him. He reveals himself to her and no one else so both feel secure in each other. Of course, I immediately thought of Game of Thrones and of Jon Snow, the coldness of the north where ravens and wolves thrive, shoulders bulked up with warm furs, in this case, feathers.
Themes: Mermaids, entrapment, ghost children
Every night, a hero is seduced by a watermaiden. When he marries, one of the ghostly women lies between him and his wife, who pines away and dies within a year, still a virgin. The man’s trysts with the watermaids are the secret he hides, the truth unspoken, the elephant in the room.
In my second illustration, the husband and wife are pushed apart by the word on the page, by the real story. Over the next three illustrations, sperm-shaped drops fall into blackness, eventually blooming into twelve ghost sighs. The twelve ejaculations are the twelve children, who are neither human nor spirit.
Themes: Transformation, jealousy, rage, trouble with fertility and conception
The wolf mother throws her children to the wolves. It is unclear whether she loves them but is ashamed or whether she’s horrified and wants to kill them. Whether her original intent is for the wolves to eat them or to raise them. This is one of those beautiful tales where meaning is left open to interpretation. And I didn’t want to give readers an answer; instead I wanted to leave them with this question. But also with a sense of unease and foreboding.
Themes: Similar tales: Frog Prince
In the frog prince the King forces his daughter to keep a promise she made to the frog: the promise of taking him to bed. Some feminist interpretations argue that the safety of girls is secondary to keeping such a promise. I agree with this interpretation. But what happens when we reverse the genders?
In “Come Along Jodl” we have the story of a witless boy saved by a smart but enchanted Frog princess. In saving him she also saves herself. Reversing the genders gives us a shift in power. But more curiously, he is depicted as a non-threatening man, a smart choice for a princess about to undergo a transformation in the most private and vulnerable of places: inside the bed.
Instead of drawing a beautiful princess or a frog in a lovely dress I focused the illustration on the more unsettling, pre-transformation aspects. The frog and the fly, fresh from the dungheap.
Themes: Identity theft
In reading this tale I was surprised at the twists and turns it took. The second brother finds the castle and decides to take his own brother’s identity, deceiving the Queen and all his subjects for some time. But he is so like his brother he nearly falls to the same fate. This is a story of identity theft as much as it is a story of enduring love between the Queen and the first brother. However, my favourite part is the vial of water that turns red as the first brother, now a statue, begins to turn permanently to stone. We decided to turn the pages bloody to show this transformation.
Themes: Bullying, cyber-shaming
The husband hangs up a humiliating picture of his wife for visitors to see for all eternity. Shelley and I saw a clear parallel to cyber-shaming in today’s online world, where the deep cruelty of kids can have life-long, devastating and sometimes life-threatening effects. In the dropcap the wounds always remain. The quills may be removed and cast aside but the pain never leaves your memory.
Themes: Stalking and violence against women
This was one of the more interesting tales for me. A handsome knight “harasses” the forest maidens, finds a girl lying asleep in the woods, turns his obsessions on her, marries her, and now she must promise the Forest Maidens that she will forever keep him from harassing them?
According to two criminal profilers, Laura Richards from New Scotland Yard and Jim Clemente from the FBI on their podcast Real Crime, when there is violence against women, the pattern of abuse looks like this: Guy meets girl. The relationship progresses really fast. He becomes abusive, uses coercion to keep her under control, and assaults her. She breaks it off. He stalks her and uses coercion tactics to get her back. There is more abuse and assault. The cops are called, who give him a slap on wrist. He gets away with it, and becomes increasingly more violent. The pattern repeats itself, but escalates, with each new girlfriend, eventually ending in homicide.
What was left out of this tale, the unsaid, was more interesting to me. The veil of silence surrounding this pattern of male violence and domination, ending in homicide, is what I wanted to explore in the art. Is the girl ‘sleeping” or dead? Does she hide her face behind her hair because she can’t face the evidence of his violence? And he, always on top, always threatening, always there.
Similar tales and motifs: Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty
Feudal lords in Germany once required their peasants to make payments of honey and beeswax. Until fairly recently, it was believed that when a death’s-head hawkmoth invades a hive, it “froze” the bees, or put them to “sleep” so it could feast on the honey inside. Science has since found evidence that chemical camouflage is behind this phenomenon. However, sleep and death were commonly associated with this curious night creature in rural areas well into the mid-1800s.
In German-speaking areas of Europe the hawkmoth was believed to foretell death: “its cry becomes the voice of anguish, the moaning of a child, the signal of grief. lt is regarded not as the creation of a benevolent being, but the device of evil spirits – spirit enemies to man – conceived and fabricated in the dark. ... Flying into their apartments in the evening, it at times extinguishes the light, foretelling war, pestilence, hunger, death to man and beast.”
Honey and the death’s-head hawkmoth is never named in “The Witch’s Head,” but for a story containing motifs of Fantasia and “Sleeping Beauty” it seemed fitting. A new mother and her baby enter the godmother witch’s hive only to be offered a chilling choice of food or eternal sleep.“At which point the witch stands up and screeches: “Eat, you pig! Or I will rip you in pieces!” And then she did.” We left the ending open-ended intentionally.