I didn’t expect anything terribly impressive when I first picked up the book East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North illustrated by Kay Nielsen. When I opened the yellow cloth cover, though, I was blown away by the 25 delicate color illustrations of a fantasy world.
Image: "The Troll was quite willing, and before long he fell asleep and began snoring." from "The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain," in Kay Nielsen, illustr., East of the Sun and West of the Moon, New York: George H. Doran, , p. 176.
And actually this is a world that made it into Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” (1941). Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen (1886-1957) drew work in 1939 that was used in the animation for two segments at the end of the film: “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria.”
On top of that, Nielsen sketched the concept paintings for “The Little Mermaid” that were used much later when Disney produced the animated fairy tale film in 1989!
With this in mind, I return to this unassuming book of Norwegian fairy tales, first published by George H. Doran in 1914.
Image: "'Well, mind and hold tight by my shaggy coat, and then there's nothing to fear,' said the Bear, so she rode a long, long way." from "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" in Nielsen's East of the Sun and West of the Moon , p. 9.
The first plate I saw was of a girl riding a polar bear under a long, thin tree. The image looked sad and isolated, but the wide, dreamlike landscape still drew me into their journey. It also reminded me of Lyra Belacqua riding the white bear Iorec Byrnison in Philip Pullman’s children's novel Northern Lights (1995) (changed to The Golden Compass in the US publications). Certainly a more current use of the short fairy tale that gives the title to the book…
Image: "The Lad in the Bear's skin, and the King of Arabia's daughter." from "The Blue Belt" in Nielsen's East of the Sun and West of the Moon , p. 48.
Further images of the fairy tales are just as stunning. Take this one from the story “The Blue Belt.” The long, thin lines in the background and the gold curls on the black curtain next to two lovers embracing make me think of Gustav Klimt and other Secession artists. Organic shapes are elongated into stylized Art Nouveau elegance.
What’s so special about these images?
In addition to being by a future Disney artist, these tipped-in color prints are processed differently than most book illustrations. They use a four color process, showing more natural color and more detail than would have been found in the usual book at the time done with a three color process.
The book itself is a true work of art.
While this is not a first edition, most likely printed in 1922, the amount of energy that went into the book’s creation is clear. You can also see this in the black and white illustrations and embellishments throughout, also by Nielsen. Here are a few of them:
The book includes fifteen tales by Norwegian folktale collectors Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe, translated by George Webbe Dasent. Clearly, however, this was a place for Nielsen to display his artistic prowess. Renowned publisher Taschen reprinted this book in 2015, marking just over 100 years since it was first published. (There is a great review by The Paris Review in the link here.)