Beauty & Beast – Olivia McCannon

This week it’s the turn of another beautiful book published by the private press Design For Today and this time it is two books in one as if you buy the signed limited edition of the first one hundred copies, as I did, you get the hardback book along with a cut out and make toy theatre which includes a script so that you can perform the play. The total run of books is just 650 so 100 with the toy theatre and 550 without. I suspect that the toy theatre edition has probably sold out as my copy is number 85, but the standard edition appears to still be available on the Design For Today website, although the page relating to it is out of date as at the time I’m writing this it still refers to it being available for pre-order only.

The illustrations have been done by Clive Hicks-Jenkins who also illustrated another book I have from Design For Today, Hansel and Gretel retold by the current Poet Laureate Simon Armitage which I reviewed back in June 2019, his style is immediately distinctive and fits both these books beautifully. The words are by poet and translator, Olivia McCannon and don’t follow any previous version of Beauty and Beast that I am aware of which is one of the joys of the book in that you have no idea where the story is going. The book is wonderfully designed by Laurence Beck so this is definitely going to be an image heavy blog, I apologise in advance for the slightly distorted pictures but I really didn’t want to force the spine flat simply to get perfect pictures.

The text above is part of Beast’s thoughts as he carries the unconscious Beauty into his castle, as she has fainted at first sight of him. As you can see this is framed within a proscenium arch to echo the toy theatre that is also part of the production and has similarly been designed by Hicks-Jenkins. Pages are sometimes with black backgrounds and otherwise white, there are also many full page and double page illustrations, this truly is an art book showcasing the poetic words by McCannon. As I said above this is an original tale involving Beauty having to go to Beast after her father took a pomegranate fruit from Beast’s garden and then signing a contract to forfeit her in return for being allowed to leave Beast’s enchanted castle.

One unusual feature of the book is that so many of the images were done by Hicks-Jenkins before the text was written, sometimes many years before the book was even thought of, and are inspired by his reaction to the Jean Cocteau film ‘La Belle et la Bête‘ which Hicks-Jenkins first saw back in 1964 and which had a huge impact on him. The words and pictures were tied together between covid lock-downs here in the UK and in her introduction McCannon gives thanks to Joe Pearson, owner of Design For Today, for “keeping faith with a project that kept wanting to change”. Whilst the text is relatively short the amount of pictures and the need to combine them all into what is a truly lovely book must have been a highly complex exercise.

One of the double page spreads, in this case depicting Beauty travelling back to her father via interconnecting mirrors. Beast allows her to do this because her father is ill but she agrees that she must return within a week. Needless to say once she is back home the week passes so quickly that she overstays leading to the final tragedy of the story when she does finally return to Beast’s castle only to find him gravely ill from the despair that she may have left him forever. Unfortunately her two sisters see her travel back via the mirrors and realise that they too can go there, but they want to rob Beast of his treasure. Whilst they attack the castle and realise that it is well defended, Beauty cries over Beast, realising at last that she truly loves him.

Sadly Beast dies but Beauty resolves to stay at the Castle, the treachery of her sisters having repelled her from her original home. I loved the book, as have all the people I have shown it to so far. But as I mentioned at the beginning mine is one of the 100 copies that come with a toy theatre in its own folder that is contained with the book in a lovely slipcase made by Ludlow Bookbinders. I haven’t made the theatre but I am considering scanning and reprinting it onto card so that I can keep the original pages whilst also enjoying the theatre. I share with Joe Pearson a love of Pollocks toy theatres along with the scarce Penguin Books items that were designed to be used with them. You can read my short history of toy theatres in Britain based on a couple of the Penguin examples here. But for now here are some pictures of the flattened toy theatre that came with this lovely book, if I do get to make it then I will replace these with the replica.

Front cover of the folder


Rear cover showing some of the cutouts and the scenes that can be performed.


Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man – Dora Broome

This is the first published edition from March 1951 by Puffin Books and includes twenty five tales, it is beautifully illustrated by John Harwood with six drawings inside along with the colour pictures on the front and back covers which I have included in this review. Harwood illustrated many children’s books including Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp under the Porpoise imprint which I covered in an earlier blog. I love the way that instead of using the Puffin Books logo on the front cover he has instead added a puffin swimming in the sea alongside the merman and the baby mermaid, who is the subject of the final tale in the book.

The book is initially quite difficult to get started with as it is written in form of dialect although fortunately all words in the Manx language are translated. You can see a sample of the text below and I found it much easier to follow when I read it out loud rather than simply reading as the rhythm of the language then makes more sense. You can guess what a lumper is from context, it seems to be similar to landlubber as Tom Gorry was on his first time out at sea with the fishing boats. Having said that a glossary at the back would have been interesting to bring together the various dialect words used through the book and confirm their exact meaning.

As you would expect from an island quite a few of the tales relate to the sea and the weird and wonderful creatures that apparently inhabit the watery realm, not just mermen and mermaids but evil such as the Glashtin who although a variety of water-horse comes in the form of a young man to drag unwary girls into the depths with him. Because of the history of the island the folk and fairy tales are influenced not only by nearby Celtic mythology and alongside that Irish christian myths such as St Patrick banishing the snakes from the Isle of Man as well as Ireland but there are also Norse origins as the island was a Viking stronghold for many years. It’s an interesting mix and the stories are told in a fun way that makes you keep reading once you have got into the swing of the language used.

One story I was a little surprised to be missing is that of the Fairy Bridge. The little people themselves are regularly referred to in the book with saucers of milk left out for them in many of the tales so that they are happy if they visit a cottage and don’t cause mischief but probably the best known link to them nowadays is the bridge and I was hoping for some background. Maybe there isn’t a specific tale but visitors to the island are even now encouraged to say hello to the fairies when crossing the bridge, which you would do quite easily as it is on the main A5 road from Douglas (the Isle of Man capital) to Port Erin in the south west of the island.

I read the book alongside a another volume ‘The Folklore of the Isle of Man’ by Margaret Killip which is one of the volumes comprising ‘The Folklore of the British Isles‘ and was first published by Batsford in 1975. This book gives a more rigorous and academic overview of the subject rather than simply retelling tales and it was interesting to look up the various creatures mentioned in the tales to get a deeper understanding of just what a Buggane or a Phynnodderee for example are and the powers each was believed to have. Bugganes feature in three of the tales and a Phynnodderee in two and this woodland spirit is depicted on the rear cover of the book.

Deep in the Forest – Estonian Fairy Tales

20180807 Deep in the Forest 1

I have recently been given a copy of this book and have thoroughly enjoyed it. The book is brand new (printed in English by Varrak Publishers Ltd in 2018) although it has an interesting story as to how it came about. What was almost this collection was originally put together by Risto Järv for a French publication “L’esprit de la forêt et autres contes estoniens” (The spirit of the forest and other Estonian tales) published by Éditions Corti in 2011, and was volume 46 of their Collection Merveilleux (Marvellous Collection) a series of books of folk tales and others legends from around the world. This French collection led to Varrak wanting to produce an edition in Estonian and whilst revising the book for this version some tales were dropped and others added to bring the total to one hundred. The Estonian book came out in 2015 with the title “Metsavaimu heategu. Sada eesti muinasjuttu metsast ja meist” (The Forest Spirit’s Deed. One Hundred Estonian Fairy Tales about the Forest and Us). The English edition I have been reading is basically the same as the Estonian although the order of the tales has been slightly altered.

The book is split into ten sections each of ten tales with a short introduction to each section providing some background to the stories you are about to read, this is especially important for non-Estonian readers as some understanding is needed as to the deep love they have of the forests of their country and the structure of the tales that have grown up around them featuring regular animal characters of bear, wolf, fox, hare and mouse all of whom can talk amongst themselves and also to those people who are willing to listen. Each of the animals have specific characteristics for example the fox is normally clever and deceitful but can also be fooled, the wolf on the other hand is not very clever and will fall for most ruses. Hare is often frightened by events and looks for others of his kind to shelter, bear is strong but like wolf not the brightest creature in the forest and can be persuaded to use his strength even if it will ultimately work against him. There are also numerous little old men and inhabitants of out of the way cottages who if they decide to help should certainly be listened to carefully because half the time they are probably forest sprites of some variety but, if you are very unlucky or unwary, could also be trying to trap you or even worse they could be Vanapagan himself.

Vanapagan is the most difficult to understand regular character in these tales for non-Estonians. He represents the devil but not in a way that would be recognised by most people outside Estonia, he is sometimes more of an annoyance than particularly evil and he can usually be outwitted with a bit of intelligent thinking. Most of the tales featuring him involve the human protagonist striking a deal with Vanapagan for some sort of time limited agreement. Often the humans realise that they are dealing with Vanapagan from the first but reckon to trick him out of completing the bargain and taking them to hell in the end. This they usually manage often with the assistance of one of the little old men that seem to always appear in the forest at times of need. If they don’t recognise Vanapagan then another character (either animal or human) that has fallen under his control will usually tell them and often suggest ways that they can alter their fate by escaping.

The book draws on a huge back catalogue of folk and fairy tales, in the Estonian Literary Museums folkloric archives alone there are roughly 15,000 fairy and folk tales which is the equivalent of one for every thousand people in the country. Most of the ones included in the book were recorded in the 1890’s but some were written down in this form within the last few years. Most of them are very short, just two or three pages long but there are a few longer ones and the selection tries to cover the major thematic groups. The ten sections are:

  • Setting out into the Forest
  • Creation Tales
  • Animals and Stories
  • Work and Wisdom
  • Men and Women
  • Unexpected Encounters
  • Orphans and Parental Mercy
  • Truth and Justice
  • Countering Vanapagan
  • Emerging from the Forest

As you can see the book is top and tailed by going in and eventually coming out of the forest which symbolises the whole Estonian tales structure that all the magical, strange and terrible things happen in the forest and the world outside of this magical place is largely unimportant and certainly far less interesting. The creation tales included are not ‘world tales’ as you might expect if you have read other mythologies but more like Kipling’s Just So stories so we discover ‘why aspen leaves flutter’, ‘how the cuckoo came to be’ and ‘why the tip of Fox’s tail is white’ amongst other things. Animals and Stories is largely about the main animal characters of the legends, whilst Work and Wisdom introduce us to morality tales usually where a character doesn’t do what they have been told is the correct way to behave and subsequently reaps the consequences.

The tales under the category of Men and Women are largely not flattering to either party but especially not the women who tend to be lazy or bad tempered or both and in their ill humour end up ruining the gains that had been made by magic or encounters with forest sprites by their menfolk. Unexpected Encounters include stories of meeting with both magical characters and in one case King Peter I of Russia that transform the lives of the protagonists. Orphans and Parental Mercy takes us away to something more akin to the dark original versions of Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales where orphans strive to rise from their misfortune or even those of Charles Perrault a century earlier. What you never get is the more child friendly style of somebody like Hans Christian Anderson, Estonian fairy tales should come with an Parental Guidance rating like films certainly when you hit Truth and Justice because the justice meted out can definitely be harsh. Countering Vanapagan is as the title suggests a group of tales where the hero of the story defeats Vanapagan with trickery often by successfully twisting the agreement between them to breaking point.

The folkloric traditions in Estonia are very important to the people there, who still have a strong link both to their forests and their mythologies, more so than in any other European country I have visited. Spending time in the countryside is ingrained in the Estonian people in a very spiritual way, being there within their woods and forests is good not just for the body but for the mind as well and most of the population will escape from the confines of the towns and cities as often as they can. As an outsider I can only get an impression of this deep love of their country but it is a powerful feeling and if you are lucky enough to be in the woods with Estonians then you can share it with them even if only briefly.