Painting Fairy Tales. Part I

It is Christmas/New Year’s Eve time, ripe with expectations of miracles and magic. The right moment to say a few words about fairy tale illustration, isn’t it?

Who doesn’t love fairy tales, those cruel stories of betrayal, passion, occasional cannibalism, good guys fighting evil forces and prevailing over common sense at the end, supernatural intelligence losing to natural stupidity, and witches doing things with magic recipes that L’Oreal claims to have already tried, tested and is happy to sell you for 50 euro a jar?

Karl Jung believed fairy tales were manifestations of the collective mind. That may well be so, albeit with a twist provided by local climate and national character. French fairy tales are mostly about complicated family relationships of sophisticated people (Cinderella and her status-obsessed stepmother, or La Barbe bleue and his curiosity-killed wives). English stories revolve around the gentleman’s dilemma of serving the king while fornicating with his wife, against a background of Merlin dueling sorceresses in their 300s. And, yes, occasionally, some Jack would kill an Ogre, becoming a role model for Arsenal fans who believe their team will beat Manchester United one glorious day. Nordic epics hammer down the concept of Valkyrian after-life rewards of group sex and communal feasts, which is the only way to justify extortionist taxes and ubiquitous IKEA design the Modern Viking has to put up with during his lifetime.

A Russian fairy tale is no different except it would often have the typically Russian set of five components.

  • impenetrable forest
  • impassable land (with weather often playing a role of its own in this)
  • impregnable naiveté of characters from the good side
  • inexplicable idiocy of representatives of the evil forces
  • ugly-looking and/or Asian bad guys (this is because Russia was fighting Mongols at the time the spoken word was folding itself into fairy tale sentences, not because of nationalism) 

Of course there are fairy tales that are common to many nations, and even continents. The Sleeping Beauty, for one.

This is her art-nouveau group portrait by Viktor Vasnetzov (created in the early 20th century). It is worth clicking on, for the large version offers a breathtaking experience of detail, including the spindle, the wood carvings, a touch of pink on princess’ cheeks, and golden slippers that slipped off her feet the moment she switched off. While exploring this painting, you may notice the subtle subtext of paired birds out in the forest, watching the improbable situation and wishing for the princess to find her own pair. For me, though, this is a very troubling picture. I hate mosquitoes, and given the patio is open and the damp forest is all around, I shudder when I think of the bloodsuckers’ population which has been sustained by this group of people throughout the centuries of sleep.


In Russia, though, Sleeping Beauty was rumoured to stay comatose for three more years after she had been kissed by the Prince, at the end of which period the Prince began feeling somewhat ridiculous and decided to bury her body with a bit of regret and a lot of royal honours. Cold climate, y’see.

Russian artists boarded the train of illustrating fairy tales roughly at the same time Pre-Raphaelites jumped on the bandwagon of King Arthur epos. The two groups had a lot in common, even thought they were quite oblivious of each other.

Artists from both groups emphasised detail as a means to make their “archetypes” believable. This is, perhaps, the only way out when painting an archetype king, princess or hero, for they tend to come out two-dimensional and “artificial” (they’re archetypes, after all). At the same time, if you do patterns on their clothes, nature around them, their haircuts and jewellery in a very authentic, almost real way, you’d expect these details to add an extra dimension to the character.

This is the gallery of Pre-Raphaelites:

And this is the gallery of Russian artists. Never show it to non-Russian children, for most of the images are so damn scary they’d make Stephen King go green with envy.

Russian artists didn’t want children to wet their panties. They wanted kids to face a fearful situation and overcome it, turn the page, go forward.

Perhaps, this idea is best illustrated by Viktor Vasnetzov in “The Knight At the Crossroads” (the English version would be “At the Roundabout”):


The stone promises death to the knight and his horse if they proceed. The knight is contemplating his choices. Finally, the knight decides to go on straight ahead, and is attacked by ruthless highwaymen. An impromptu show of force by the knight makes the robbers throw themselves upon his mercy.   

This painting is more than just an illustration. 

Save the large version and study it for some time. Try to see how the artist motivates the viewer to decide to go ahead. Next time, I will focus on this piece with scalpels in hand. 

In the meantime, please drop me a line about your favourite fairy tale, myth, legend, and, perhaps, your favourite illustration of it. I’d love to hear about your relationship with fairy tales!

P.S. I am mixing fairy tales, myths and legends in this post, because following the correct classification of fairy tales is just boring. Anyway, they are all tales:

“The Odyssey is a perfect example of the kind of fairy tale a husband who didn’t come back home on time can weave for his wife…”


  1. This was a hilarious write-up. Is that wrong?
    Anyway, I remember being absolutely enchanted by the old-school Soviet (or maybe even pre-Soviet?) illustrations of Alenkij Tsvetochek (Beauty and the beast). And I was SO SCARED by the monster. He was humongous and really otherworldly, not a freaking lion in an 18th century nobleman’s frock. (might be from the same book Oh, childhood nostalgia…

  2. When my daughter was about 6 I bought her a wonderful edition of Anderson’s and Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales (she was reading them at the bed time, poor child!) After three days she asked me thoughtfully: “Mummy, why are these tales so cruel? Why the Little Mermaid dies after she has scarified so much? Why the parents take their children to the woods where they are surely would die? Basically, whey are they all so tragic?” ( or something similar, you understand) What could I say?! It was true!

    1. Oh, but Grim(m) Brothers offer a sub-genre in fairy tales, when good may win but only paying the highest price possible, which, in fact, takes their tales away from the Fairy land and into adult fantasy )

    1. No, I didn’t know her, but I googled the name – thank you for the lead. To me, she’s too light-hearted and uber-sweet and that takes the drama out of a painting or drawing. As you can see from the examples shown here, I am a big fan of illustrations that show the conflict between the dark and light sides. It’s never sweet and often involves piles of dead bodies 😉 That’s the Russian way – and I will write more about it in my next post.

        1. I am all with you about the need for friendlier stories, but, being Russian, I couldn’t avoid the trauma of being exposed to the very grim stuff when I was a kid, i.e. stories in which light was winning, but only after much whining. 😉

          1. I read some pretty scary stuff, too, but the Russians should have their own category. They bring a darker, sadder more despairing quality. So many of fairy or folk tales deal with poverty, hunger, violence, death and weather extremes. Real dangers that many kids these days are sheltered from. I try to write for the modern kid.

            That Princess Bride quote: “never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line” would be even more appropriate substituting Russian for Sicilian.

  3. Your text and the wonderful paintings have me once again all glorious liked. But if I understand your first sentence correctly, then you call Christmas and fairy tales in one breath. This is very brave, finally, Christmas is a very very serious matter for nearly two billion people in the world, and anything but a fairy tale. (And countless children of the rich countries in the world but then Christmas must seem like a fairy tale, because of the many fabulous gifts (;-)). Incidentally, I have nothing against a comparison. Finally, no wars have been fought because of fairy tales in the last 2000 years to my knowledge. Incidentally, I recently saw a great movie from Finland on television where the Santa was a bloodthirsty monster that eats small children. Great satire.

    1. You are right that I should link fairy tales to x-mas in a better way. Thank you – I’ll get down to it right now, via magic. I personally think the line is blurred at best, but you’re right someone can be offended.

      1. So I personally like your combination of both very good. For me everything is what to do with religion has a fairy tale. And if there is a God but then we just hope that he has humor. Man, he should have created this world in six days – as it must but have humor, right?

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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