Saying it with Pictures: Fairy Tale Illustrations

The first book I remember reading is my big, heavy book of fairy tales. It featured tales from the Grimm and Perrault collections, as well as some taken from the Arabian Nights and classic American literature like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, besides stories like Johnny Appleseed, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and a couple of Brer Rabbit stories. Many were also sourced from traditional folklore collections of Spain, India, China, Italy and the British Isles.

Anyway, since I started reading for my Coursera Fairy Tales assignment, I kept thinking of the gorgeous illustrations of that early book. I loved it so much as a child that I felt I had to stamp my ownership all over it. It is, therefore, filled with scribbles and sketches (even moustaches for the bad guys). After me, my younger sister took over the book and she’s doodled in it too. Sometimes I feel bad that we didn’t take better care of this book: it’s spine has fallen apart and many of the illustrations are now marred by our once well-meant additions. Other times, however, I can’t help but laugh out loud. It’s a beloved book and in all its sketches and doodles and scribblings, it also contains the history of our childhood years. It shows who we adored  (Cinderella, over whose gorgeous dress we have drawn over and over again) and who we hated (the witch in Sleeping Beauty, upon whom we bestowed the fearsome teeth which were missing in the original illustration). Anyway, I decided to share some of these images with my readers.  I know most of you enjoy a good picture just as much as you enjoy a good story.

Hansel and Grethel:

Hansel and Grethel overhear their stepmother’s nefarious plot

An illustration from Sleeping Beauty: notice the witch’s new and improved fangs

From The Golden Goose

Cinderella dances with her prince

From The Fisherman and his Wife

From The Goose Girl: Notice the moustache on the girl at the back

Also from The Goose Girl

Studying with Coursera (come, join us!)

English: Illustration of "The Robber Brid...

Not for the faint of heart: “The Robber Bridegroom” from Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm, translated by Lucy Crane, illustrated by Walter Crane, first published by Macmillan and Company in 1886. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes it seems like you just can’t take a break. I’ve been meaning to update this blog for so long, but something or the other keeps cropping up and I postpone my self-appointed task. Anyway, among the many, many things that have been keeping me busy, is this new course that I have enrolled for at Coursera (Go check it out here. It’s the bee’s knees!). This website is brilliant: it has courses on mathematics, culture, music, psychology, statistics, literature offered by places like Stanford, Princeton, Michigan U, John Hopkins, Duke, Edinburgh, Berkeley and Georgia Tech.  And the best part? They’re free!


So right now, I’m taking a course called ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World’ by the University of Michigan. Our Prof is Eric Rabkin, who’s already proved himself totally awesome with the first sort-of lecture (and an email he sent out to all the students). Anyway, this is a ten week long course, we have ten separate units on works by the Brothers Grimm, Lewis Carroll, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, HG Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin and Cory Doctorow, and we have an assignment to submit on each of these units. As you can imagine, that is a lot of work and takes about 8-12 hours a week.  I’m not even counting the time we’re supposed to put into reviewing – and commenting on – the works of other students and participating in the forums.


The course only started this week, and already it’s crazy – at least on the forums. The first work that we’re reading is Household Tales by the Grimm Brothers and the edition we’re using is the one translated by Lucy Crane, with gorgeous illustrations by her brother Walter Crane.  Now, I’m sure most of us know that the so-called ‘Fairy Tales’ that we read as kids were not really meant for kids. Of course, their origins are shrouded in the mists of the distant past. It’s clear that they’re centuries old, but nobody can really tell where they came from (there’s this brilliant essay that argues for French origins).  Anyway, it is generally agreed by all that these tales were originally told by peasants to amuse themselves.  The moral teachings that get attached to them were probably later German additions (again, read that essay. Please! I beg you!).


Anyway, I hope you were all fortunate enough to have read the stories as kids in their slightly less-mutilated versions as presented by the Crane siblings. And I certainly hope that you don’t still believe that the Disney versions are faithful in any sense to the plots or spirit of the originals. If you were unlucky enough to have only caught Disney’s brutal assault on those tales, then it might interest you to know that there’s a lot more murder, rape and cannibalism going on in the original stories than your tender hearts would care for. Yes, you read that right. Cannibalism. (Read this horror of a story called The Juniper Tree, also known as The Almond Tree, which unsurprisingly fell out of the popularity charts quite some time back.)


So, back to gushing about the course: I’m already learning a LOT of new things. And new ways of looking at familiar stories.  The forums are super active, with new threads of discussion being added  everyday. To be honest, it’s a little difficult to have something useful and enlightening to say about every story in the book, but a lot of the students seem to be trying very, very hard. We’ve already discussed what the stories tell us about gender, why so many of them feature deception and cheating, and why most of them are so violent. One discussion was about the significance of the colour red in Little Red-Cap’s attire and whether it stood for her budding sexuality; another was about looking for vestiges of ancient, pre-Christian religious practices in the stories. I tell you, it’s all simply fascinating!


Since the course started earlier this week, admissions are of course closed for now. But if Prof. Rabkin does bring it back later, do be sure to check it out.