Fairy Tales with Lisbeth Zwerger

I know that I feature quite a few “unconventional” children’s book illustrators on this blog, and believe me, that is intentional. But that doesn’t mean that the original fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and even Lewis Carroll don’t deserve recognition. There is a reason, after all, why those (often quite gruesome) tales have persisted for centuries. If you are one for classic children’s stories (as even I am from time to time), then Austrian illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger’s interpretations, which seem to be plucked directly from a whimsical child’s imagination, will be sure to satisfy you.

“Thumbeline” by Hans Christian Andersen; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
“Thumbeline” by Hans Christian Andersen; translated from Danish by Richard and Clara Winston. William Morrow and Company, New York, 1980.

Let’s start with Thumbeline, a classic story by Hans Christian Andersen that was later turned into the shoddily-animated film “Thumbelina” that I nevertheless loved as a kid. What can I say? I have always been short, so the tale of a girl the size of a thumb resonated with me. The original story is quite dark—Thumbeline is kidnapped and nearly forced into marriage not once, but twice, only to escape and nearly starve to death during the winter. Disturbing things about women as property, that. Nonetheless, Zwerger’s illustrations are soft and beautiful, and come very close to how I imagined the story. And, of course, Thumbeline’s friendships with select animals (only those that Andersen deemed attractive or harmless, mind you) are often quite sweet.

“Thumbeline” by Hans Christian Andersen; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
“Thumbeline”

Although Oscar Wilde was best-known for his satirical portrayals of 19th-century England, he once published a collection of short stories for children that became well-known in its own right. Like most of the other stories written for children during that period, the stories in The Happy Prince and Other Tales are rather pendulous with regard to moral overtones. In “The Selfish Giant,” a tall, ornery man initially refuses to let the children in the village play in his beautiful garden. Zwerger’s soothing and soft-focus drawings bring out the story’s sweet undertones.

Selfish Giant image 1
“The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde. Neugebauer Press Publishing Ltd., 1984.

Considering the volume of stories by Hans Christian Andersen that Lisbeth Zwerger has illustrated, it’s fitting that she won the Andersen Medal in 1990 for her lasting contributions to children’s literature. As I’ve said before, the Andersen Medal is the highest honor of its type, and is often nicknamed the Nobel Prize for children’s literature. Beyond that, Zwerger has won just about every prize imaginable that relates to illustration. Perhaps for Christmas one year I’ll ask for this undoubtedly gorgeous, but rather expensive, compilation of her work.

“The Sandman: 7 Good Night Stories” by Hans Christian Andersen; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
“The Sandman: 7 Good Night Stories” by Hans Christian Andersen; translated from                        Danish by Anthea Bell. Neugebauer Rights & Licenses Ltd., 1992.

When I was growing up, I thought the Sandman was an evil monster who gave children nightmares. For once Andersen’s characterization is the more lighthearted one:

The Sandman comes in the evening , when children are sitting at the table, or perhaps on their stools. He comes upstairs very quietly in his stocking feet, opens the door softly, and then he sprinkles the finest of sand into their eyes…The Sandman does them no harm, for he is kind to children…He wants them to be quiet so that he can tell them stories…No one in the world knows as many stories as the Sandman. Yes, indeed, he tells really wonderful stories!

At any rate, Zwerger’s illustrations are anything but frightening, even if the above passage does still seem to have (at least from my perspective) some potentially threatening undertones. Here, the Sandman helps a child climb into the story within a picture hanging on the wall.

“The Sandman: 7 Good Night Stories” by Hans Christian Andersen; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
from “The Sandman: 7 Good Night Stories”

And here the Sandman tells a story about “‘the other Sandman…my brother…called Death.” What a way to introduce children to the concept! Hans Christian Andersen was not much of one for subtlety. Luckily, Lisbeth Zwerger is, and her version of Death isn’t frightening at all, but rather a gallant gentleman atop a steed.

“The Sandman: 7 Good Night Stories” by Hans Christian Andersen; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
“The Sandman”

One of my favorite works of Zwerger’s, though, is Biblical in origin—and, some would say, the very first fairy tale. Despite the violent and vengeful take on Noah’s Ark released in the last year by Darren Aronofsky, I still remember the story as I first learned it in Sunday school: a calming one about animals, peace, kindness, and beginning anew. (For an excellent review of the film, by the way, head on over to Black is White). Luckily, Zwerger’s interpretation falls into the latter category.

“Noah’s Ark” by Heinz Janisch; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
“Noah’s Ark” by Heinz Janisch; translated by Rosemary Lanning. Michael Neugebauer Verlag AG, 1997.

You’ll have to indulge me a bit here; I couldn’t resist posting multiple images from this book (still only about 11% of the content by my calculations, in case you’re worried about Fair Use on my behalf)…

“Noah’s Ark” by Heinz Janisch; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.

“Noah’s Ark” by Heinz Janisch; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.

“Noah’s Ark” by Heinz Janisch; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.

Coming back again to the traditionally accepted notion of fairy tale, Lizbeth Zwerger’s take on The Seven Ravens by the Brothers Grimm is nothing shy of perfection.

“The Seven Ravens” by the Brothers Grimm; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
“The Seven Ravens” by the Brothers Grimm; translated from German by Elizabeth D.                 Crawford. William Morrow and Company, 1981.

Like many of the stories by the Grimm Brothers, The Seven Ravens is undeniably dark, even terrifying. It involves a severed finger, after all. But at the end of the day it is about bravery, love, and familial loyalty.

“The Seven Ravens” by the Brothers Grimm; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
from “The Seven Ravens”

When I was in Germany a couple of years ago, doing research at the International Youth Library, I was often struck by how closely Munich resembled the illustrations in so many of the books I’d read as a child. It was very exciting, if slightly eerie, to walk through the country in which many of the original fairy tales were dreamed up. I mean, for goodness sake, the International Youth Library is housed in Schloss Blutenberg, a castle complete with a moat and swans! Suffice it to say that the aesthetic in many children’s books, and especially of those by illustrators such as Zwerger, have much in common with the Western European landscape.

“The Seven Ravens” by the Brothers Grimm; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
from “The Seven Ravens”

It was, for a time, if not realistic to expect to marry into royalty, then at least more of a possibility than it is today. After all, I saw something like half a dozen castles in the week-and-a-half that I spent in Bavaria. Often, though, those stories about nobility and royalty, such as The Swineherd by Hans Christian Andersen, involve a test of sincerity.

“The Swineherd” by Hans Christian Andersen; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
“The Swineherd” by Hans Christian Andersen; translated from Danish by Anthea Bell. William Morrow and Company, 1982.

In these stories, princes are desirable only when outfitted in princely garb; princesses are considered eligible for marriage only when dressed in billowing skirts and fine jewelry. What, after all, is the point of Cinderella if not to say that one can only be attractive when equipped with the right resources? And so, there is the eternal test—can the nobleman or noblewoman recognize his or her betrothed when they are disguised as a peasant? Or is the attraction based on silk and crowns, instead of good intentions?

“The Swineherd” by Hans Christian Andersen; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
from “The Swineherd”

Last, but not least, are Zwerger’s gorgeous illustrations for Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet, Swan Lake. Zwerger never completely separates human from swan, such that Odette is perpetually perched on the brink of transformation.

“Swan Lake” by Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
“Swan Lake” by Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky; translated by Marianne Martens. Michael Neugebauer Verlag, 2002.

I wish they would make an animated film, or create the set for the dance performance, using Zwerger’s dreamlike, watercolor aesthetic.

“Swan Lake” by Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
from “Swan Lake”
“Swan Lake” by Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
from “Swan Lake”

For more information about Lisbeth Zwerger, please see:

A few more of the illustrators that I’m planning to feature soon on this site: Isol from Argentina, Wolf Erlbruch from Germany, and Oliver Jeffers from Australia.  And there will also be a roundup of different illustrated editions of Alice in Wonderland coming soon as well (including Zwerger’s version). Cheers!

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19 thoughts on “Fairy Tales with Lisbeth Zwerger

  1. Excellent post – great information & beautiful illustrations. I have passed this post on to family and friends. I will be exploring your blof in further detail. 🙂

    Folklore, fantasy and fairy tales are among my interests. I am presently working on (one of my blogs) a creative exploration of the Tale of Little Red Riding Hood – it is called Implied Spaces: Skinning the Wolf.

    1. Many thanks for sharing this post! It’s been a surprisingly popular one 🙂
      Your investigation of Little Red Riding Hood sounds fantastic. Have you seen the version illustrated by Sarah Moon? Disturbing!

      1. I did a quick check for images & information. Sounds intriguing and looks very disturbing. 🙂
        .
        My wife has founded & directs a group of special needs community members – Elliot Lake’s Roundabout Exceptional Puppeteers. She has toured the group within our community at schools & senior’s homes. The main piece that she created is is called “The Adventures of Dorothy and Alice”. It mixes pantomime , shadow puppetry, and life-size puppets.

        http://kbcreateblog.wordpress.com/2014/05/17/show-at-the-civic-centre-elliot-lake-ontario-june-30th-2014/

        Here is the link to my post .
        http://impliedspaces.wordpress.com/2014/06/27/implied-spaces-skinning-the-wolf-1/

  2. With a children’s book the illustration forms half the story for the child and the artwork and writing blend as one to form the story. These illustrations are relaxing and calming, perfect bed time drawings for kids. I don’t think this fits that theme but the modern (and dark) “A monster Calls” by Patrick Ness is an amazing example of Childrens lit with darkly beautiful artwork. It’s a depressing tale and the back story behind the work only serves to make it more so, but I think it’s still worth a look for older (10 and up) children.

  3. Amazing post Alina – you definitely have a way with words 🙂 I have a penchant for fairytales and illustrations, and the tales and pics above are beautiful. Makes me want to pull out my pencils and draw in front of the fireplace (it is winter here after all). 🙂

  4. Bravo! What a fabulous post!! I’ve been a Zwerger fan for a long time. So nice to see all these illustrations — the first Sandman one is my favorite. 🙂 I was also fascinated by Thumbelina and enjoyed the movie.

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