Wonder, Hungry Wolves, and the Whimsy of Resilience: Arthur Rackham’s Haunting 1920 Illustrations for Irish Fairy Tales


This is a lyrical reminder of how our fear and our tenderness both come from one source.


Wonder, Hungry Wolves, and the Whimsy of Resilience: Arthur Rackham’s Haunting 1920 Illustrations for Irish Fairy Tales

“If you want your children to be intelligent,” Einstein is said to have said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

But fairy tales also make us, children and grown children alike, kinder and more resilient by grounding us in the knowledge — a primal knowledge we unlearn as we grow up and grow frightened of feeling — that the terrible and the transcendent spring from the same source, that our capacity for sorrow and our capacity for love spring from the same source, that the measure of life’s beauty and magic is not the absence of terror and tumult but the presence, persistence, and grace with which we face reality on its own terms.

Arthur Rackham Art Irish Fairy TalesJames Stephens 1920. This print is also available as stationery cards.

In 1920, in the middle of Ireland’s guerrilla war for independence, weeks before Bloody Sunday, a book both very new and very old appeared and swiftly disappeared into eager hands — a lyrical, lighthearted, yet poignant retelling of ancient Irish myths by the Irish poet and novelist James Stephens.

His Irish Fairy Tales, ten stories (public library, public domain), transported the reader away from heartache and bloodshed into another world, in which the worst and best parts of human nature converge in an alternate reality that transcends the human realm.| public domain) transported readers away from the world of bloodshed and heartache, into another, where the worst and the best of the human spirit entwine in something else, transcending the human plane. One world in which a handful of blackberries can be a stronger weapon than a sword. A world where humans can transform into animals and sprites; where eternal loyalty promises are broken and children are left behind; where armies are crushed by venomous sheep; and where families are driven from their homes by lost chess games. Strange world, where beauty and violence coexist; a world that is both awash in its bizarre sense of justice but which is saved by the help of its peculiar species of hope.

16 exquisite colour plates, as well as two dozen black and white illustrations are featured in this world. Arthur Rackham (September 19, 1867–September 6, 1939), who lived through the First World War and died five days after the start of the second.

Arthur Rackham Art Irish Fairy TalesJames Stephens 1920. This print is also available as stationery cards.

Rackham’s iconic Alice in Wonderland illustrations, thirteen years later than his revolutionizing technology for book art and his six-year-old hauntingly beautiful version of The Tempest illustrated it, accentuates the transportive magic of stories through his visual poetry of shape and oddness.

Arthur Rackham Art Irish Fairy TalesJames Stephens 1920. This print is also available as stationery cards.
Arthur Rackham Art Irish Fairy TalesJames Stephens 1920. This print is also available as stationery cards.
Arthur Rackham Art Irish Fairy TalesJames Stephens 1920. This print is also available as stationery cards.
Arthur Rackham Art Irish Fairy TalesJames Stephens 1920. This print is also available as stationery cards.
Arthur Rackham Art Irish Fairy TalesJames Stephens 1920. This print is also available as stationery cards.
Arthur Rackham Art Irish Fairy TalesJames Stephens 1920. This print is also available as stationery cards.
Arthur Rackham Art Irish Fairy TalesJames Stephens 1920. This print is also available as stationery cards.
Arthur Rackham Art Irish Fairy TalesJames Stephens 1920. This print is also available as stationery cards.
Arthur Rackham Art Irish Fairy TalesJames Stephens 1920. This print is also available as stationery cards.

Coursing through the stories is the recurring fantasy of mitigating the ills of human nature with the wide-brimmed benevolence of nature — again and again, humans transmogrify into other animals to find a foothold for justice, a touchstone of goodness and grace. (Across the Atlantic in that same time, John Burroughs the poet naturalist was asserting his passionate insistence that humans cannot escape to fantasy in order to save their natures. Rockwell Kent the artist was searching for antidotes to violence in nature, while Franz Marc his German counterpart was pronouncing the victory of beauty over brute force in astonishing animal paintings on the hillsides of France.

Arthur Rackham Art Irish Fairy TalesJames Stephens 1920. This print is also available as stationery cards.

Stephens animated the main character of the original fairy tale in one of his most poetic passages.

Old age again overtook me. My limbs were ravaged by weariness, while my thoughts drifted to anguish. After I had dreamed it, I went back to Ulster Cave and changed into a Hawk. The ground was gone. My kingdom was the sweet air, my bright eyes stared at a hundred miles. I flew high, I moved fast, and I was able to see the other side of the abyss.

[…]

My life was long and arduous. Every hill, stream and field in Ireland was my territory. I knew the shape of cliffs and coasts, and how all places looked under the sun or moon… Then I grew old, and in my Ulster cave close to the sea I dreamed my dream, and in it I became a salmon. My dream and me were overthrown by the green waters of the ocean. I did not drown, but I became that which I had hoped to be. After being a man, woman, boar, bird and now a fish, I’m now a fish. All my life changes brought me joy and the fullness of living. But in the water joy lay deeper, life pulsed deeper… How I flew through the soft element: how I joyed in the country where there is no harshness: in the element which upholds and gives way; which caresses and lets go, and will not let you fall. The man might stumble on a furrow, the stag may fall from a cliff, and the hawk may be battered and worn out, with the dark surrounding him and the storm ahead, and his brain against a tree. The sea is the protector of all its creatures, but the salmon’s home is his joy.

Arthur Rackham Art Irish Fairy TalesJames Stephens 1920. This print is also available as stationery cards.

Complement with these enchanting illustrations for Walter de la Mare’ fairy-poems by Rackham’s contemporary Dorothy Lathrop and the gifted teenage artist Virginia France Sterrett’s illustrations for old French fairy tales from the same era, then revisit the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s lyrical and lovely case for fairy tales and the importance of being scared and J.R.R. Tolkien’s psychology of fantasy.


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