Monday, June 2, 2014


IN THE WINTER OF 1962, Randall Jarrell, the former United States Poet Laureate and recipient of the 1961 National Book Award for Poetry, was bedridden with hepatitis. Too tired to read his own mail, his wife Mary sat by his bedside opening and reading aloud the get-well cards and other correspondences that arrived each day. One of those letters was a note on Macmillan letterhead from a young children's book editor the Jarrells had never heard of named Michael di Capua. di Capua was planning a series of over-sized picture book collections of fairy tales with new introductions by literary stars such as John Updike, Isak Dinesen, and Elizabeth Bowen. Having noted Jarrell's repeated references to the Brothers Grimm in his poetry, di Capua wanted Jarrell to contribute a selection of tales from the Brothers' folktales. Energized by the prospect in a way he hadn't been for weeks, Jarrell sat up and asked Mary to bring him a copy of the complete tales in German. He chose five stories--Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs, Hansel and Gretel, The Golden Bird, Snow-White and Rose-Red, and The Fisherman and His Wife--and began translating while still in bed.

It is no surprise that di Capua thought of Jarrell for the Grimm entry to his series. Jarrell's poems include "The Märchen," the German word for folktales, which is subtitled "(Grimm's Tales)," "Cinderella," "The Sleeping Beauty: Variation of the Prince," and dozens of others that refer to the folk stories. Jarrell uses the tales to explore the ways in which childhood forges identity, but even more so, to understand how a person can live in the modern world of machines and atomic weapons, and still find a home and family. As he says in his introduction to the The Golden Bird and Other Tales:
"As you read the stories they remind you of what the world used to be like before people had machines and advertisements and wonder drugs and Social Security. But they remind you, too, that in some ways the world hasn't changed; that our wishes and dreams are the same as ever. Reading Grimm's Tales tells someone what we're like, inside, just as reading Freud tells him. The Fisherman and His Wife--which is one of the best stories anyone ever told, it seems to me--is as truthful and troubling as any newspaper headlines about the new larger-sized H-bomb and the new anti-missile missile: a country is never satisfied either, but wants to be like the good Lord."
The rest of Jarrell's introduction is devoted to a poem by the German poet Eduard Mörike, in which Mörike reads Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs to a child, and comes to the realization that he has a fairytale wish: to have his own wife and children. Jarrell never had children of his own, but helped raise Mary's two daughters from a previous marriage, so it is easy to imagine how Mörike's wish resonated with Jarrell.

IT WASN'T JUST THE SUBJECT MATTER, however, that attracted Jarrell to the Grimm project. He was also a greater lover of the German language. His wife Mary once said, "I came into Randall's life after Salzburg and Rilke, about the middle of Mahler; and I got to stay through Goethe and up to Wagner." Mary clearly felt that Jarrell's life could be defined by his German influences. As Jarrell himself wrote, "Till the day I die I'll be in love with German." But some of that passion relied on the mysteries of the language for him. He never spoke German, and understood it only well enough to labor through his translations with the assistance of a German/English dictionary. "My translations of the stories," he wrote in his introduction, "are as much like the real German stories as I could make them." Comparing them side-by-side with other translations of the tales, it seems that Jarrell was very faithful.

But when a reader chooses a version of the fairy tales to read, the illustrations are sometimes more important than the translations, and Jarrell was fortunate to have such an incredible illustrator in Sandro Nardini. While his paintings might be overly idyllic at times, the lush colors, and evocative Medieval setting of the stories make Jarrell's book beautiful to look at as well as to read. To see more of the illustrations from the book, head over to my Flickr account. And look for samples of other illustrators who have chosen Jarrell's text for their own versions of the fairy tales in an upcoming post.

FOR THIS POST, I consulted The Children's Books of Randall Jarrell by Jerome Griswold with an introduction by Mary Jarrell, Randall Jarrell's Letters editd by Mary Jarrell, Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life by William H. Pritchard, and "Jarrell and the Germans" by Richard K. Cross.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

No comments:

Post a Comment