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Posts Tagged ‘folklore’

East of the Sun and West of the Moon

December 3, 2015 | by

Kay Nielsen, illustration from “The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain” ("No sooner had he whistled ... ”), 1914. All images © Courtesy of TASCHEN

If you’ve seen Fantasia, you are, whether you know it or not, familiar with the work of Kay Nielsen, a Danish artist whose illustrations collide light and dark in sublime, often disquieting quantities, with patterns of feverish detail abutting vast stretches of negative space. His work was used in Fantasia’s “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” sequences, but his stint at Disney came late in his career. It’s worth, instead, seeking out his work as a book illustrator, especially 1914’s East of the Sun and West of the Moon, which Taschen has just reissued in a lavish new edition.

East of the Sun comprises fifteen stoical and weirdly moving Norwegian folktales, boasting names like “Prince Lindworm,” and “The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body.” The stories came hard-won from the folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe, who had spent years in the mid-nineteenth century journeying across the fjords to remote fishing, farming, and mining villages to transcribe the local lore. A cast of trolls, ogres, and witches roots the stories clearly in Norse pagan mythology, but what makes them distinctly Scandinavian, Taschen’s editor Noel Daniel told me, is the outsized, often personified role of the natural world: the North Wind is a character, brawny and menacing, and nature itself is a character, alternately gloomy and glowing. After a four-hundred-year sleep in which Norway had been subjugated to Denmark, tales from the vernacular like these helped to form the country’s national identity. As the art historian Colin White writes in an introduction to the new edition, “Snow, ice, and brittleness determined the character of these northern legends. The clash of sword blades echoed the crack of ice. The crunch of frozen ground was all the more sinister when it was made with an armored foot or a heavily shod battle charger.” Read More »

Letter from Mitla

November 10, 2015 | by

Visiting the altars for Dia de los Muertos.

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All photographs by Shona Sanzgiri.

Thirty miles from the city of Oaxaca is San Pablo Villa de Mitla, where, according to Mesoamerican lore, the dead go to rest. It’s a small town surrounded by mountains and distinguished by an arid climate, which has preserved relics up to ten thousand years old and attracted archaeologists from all over the world. During the days around Dia de los Muertos, Mitla transforms into a gateway for the deceased lured by the town’s many altars, built by their loved ones, still living here in this world.

The ornate displays are abundant with ofrendas, offerings of food and drink. Pyramids of fruit, bursting marigolds, packs of Marlboros—or Camels or Chesterfields, depending on one’s preference—ripe plantains, candles of all sizes, meticulously decorated loaves of pan de muertos, and clay gourds of mescal and water (even the dead suffer from hangovers) comprise most offerings. Pictures of the deceased, typically unsmiling, feature in the center of the room, encircled by votives and depictions of different Catholic saints and apostates. The room often smells of woodsy black and white copal, an incense made from tree resin. Read More »

Sir George Douglas’s “The Strange Visitor”

January 16, 2013 | by

When my brother and I were small, our parents would read to us each evening. When it was my mother’s turn, she generally read poetry. I don’t know from which children’s collection she read, but it was terrifying: in particularly heavy rotation (at my request) were “Don’t Care,” in which the insouciant protagonist is made to care by being “put in a pot / and boiled til he was done,” “Ozymandias” (I found the idea of the head lying in the sand frightening), and my favorite, “Strange Visitor.”

When I decided to find the poem online, I came across several variations; in the original, compiled by the folklorist Sir George Douglas, the dialect is Scottish; in other adaptations (including that anthologized by George Jacobs) more modern English. The plot is always the same: a woman, sitting at her spinning wheel, wishes for company. A series of mismatched, disembodied parts come in—knees, shoulders, neck, hands—and the figure gives a series of gnomic answers to her questions. “What have you come for?” she asks at last. “FOR YOU!” the reader shouts, leaving any listening children in a state of blissful petrification. The following is Douglas’s transcription, and his stage directions.

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Zora Neale Hurston on Zombies

January 7, 2013 | by

In honor of Ms. Hurston’s birthday, this fascinating clip from a 1943 interview.

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