Not Grimm… But Grim
A review of Willow Dawson and Shelley Tanaka’s White as Milk, Red as Blood: The Forgotten Fairy Tales of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth (Alfred A Knopf Canada, 2018).
By Derek Newman-Stille
When I first read the fairy tales recorded by Bavarian folklore collector Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, the tales seemed whimsically short and light even though many of the tales featured the grim characteristics of fairy tales like abuse, murder, violence, hunger, and torture. This underscores the power of translation and the influence that it has on the way we read folk narratives. Simple things like word choice, tone, or presentation on the page can shift our readings of fairy tales.
When I encountered Willow Dawson and Shelley Tanaka’s White as Milk, Red as Blood: The Forgotten Fairy Tales of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, my reading of von Schonwerth’s tales changed drastically, and I attribute the way the stories were read in this collection with that shift. The tales suddenly took on darker tones, words stood out like blood, witch, wolf, hunt, strangled, and death. Despite the way that words suddenly spoke themselves suffused with melancholy and anger, it wasn’t Tanaka’s translation alone that triggered the shift in reading. Rather, it was the magical binding of Tanaka’s words to Dawson’s art. Dawson’s illustrations of the tales were able to play with the intrusion of the inhuman into the human world, underscoring the threatening potential of these tales. She evoked a beauty tinged with tragedy in her art, interweaving flowers with bodies and blood.
Text is scattered across Dawson’s images, which gives them a weighty presence in the narrative, making them part of the story rather than a side note, addendum, or marginalia. Dawson is able to pull words out of Tanaka’s translation to emphasize parts of the tale that the reader might disregard.
Dawson’s art incorporates aspects of folk art, giving the work a timeless quality, and reminding the reader that this is folklore in motion – always shifting and changing, but maintaining its roots.
Although Tanaka and Dawson don’t use all of von Schonwerth’s tales, they create a representative sample, a tasting of the folklore that von Schonwerth was able to collect. By incorporating the visual with the textual, Tanaka and Dawson are able to capture some of the multivocality and mutability of fairy tales, highlighting the way that fairy tales can take on new meanings through their contexts.
to find out more about White as Milk, Red as Blood: The Forgotten Fairy Tales of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, go to https://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/546931/white-milk-red-blood#9780345812186
To discover more about Willow Dawson, go to https://www.willowdawson.com
to discover more about Shelley Tanaka, go to https://www.writersunion.ca/member/shelley-tanaka