"A library book, I imagine, is a happy book." Cornelia Funke

"Everything puts me in mind of a story." Ben Franklin

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Firebird

Like Peter and the Wolf, the Firebird story is also well known with musical accompaniment, this time as a ballet by Igor Stravinsky. In picture book variations of the tale, some authors and illustrators include the story’s musical and stage roots, while others address it strictly as a fairy tale.

The Tale of The Firebird The Tale of The Firebird by Gennady Spirin, Translated by Tatiana Popova, 2002.

Spirin/Popova’s version is rooted in three Russian fairy tales: “Ivan-Tsarevitch and the Gray Wolf,” “Baba Yaga,” and “Koshchei the Immortal.” In this story, Ivan-Tsarevitch spies a Firebird while watching for the thief of golden apples in the garden of his father the Tsar. Failing to catch it, Ivan is sent to capture the special bird for the Tsar. He is aided in his quest by a magical, shape changing wolf. Because he fails to listen to the wolf’s instructions, Ivan complicates things and ends up having to complete seemingly impossible tasks for two more rulers. Doing so, he tangles with our old friend, Baba Yaga, and the evil Koshchei the Immortal. Koshchei has imprisoned Yelena the Beautiful, a princess of marriageable age. Luckily, Ivan is brave, powerful and full of love.

In my opinion, Gennady Spirin is a splendid artist, and nowhere is this better displayed than in his illustrated Russian tales (more to come on this). Gorgeous, extremely detailed watercolor pictures fill The Firebird. Often they are shaped like palace windows, some in triptychs, many bordered with patterns of trees, Firebirds and small portraits of the story’s characters. The book has an antique feel, with parchment colored pages and a rich color scheme of gold, navy, and touches of berry red. On the book’s front cover we find the amazing bird in all its glory, appearing as a peacock with radiant golden tail feathers. Every spread is a feast of pattern and visual texture, from Ivan’s furry wolf friend, to Baba Yaga’s piny woods. Readers will admire the exotic palaces, flying animals and unnerving fiends that Spirin has created.

Firebird by Rachel Isadora, 1994.

Isadora is a former ballerina, and her inspiration for this picture book is George Balanchine’s version of the ballet. Therefore, her Firebird is described as half woman, half bird and is drawn as a dancer. In this story, Prince Ivan hunts in the forest for a magical tree with golden fruit. There he sees the Firebird and catches her, but, realizing that she is terrified, he releases her in pity. To reward him, she gives him one of her feathers as a magic charm. She later aids him when he fights the evil sorcerer, Katschei, to free ten beautiful princesses.

Isadora’s characters literally dance across the pages of her dreamlike and magical Firebird. Each scene is awash with layers of color. A snowy vision of Ivan’s palace shows a sky of blues, purple, pink and white, also reflected in the snow scape below. The Firebird leaps through the sky in a swirl of crimson tutu into a magical garden spilling over with jewel-colored flowers. Pale green skinned demons cavort with Katschei over elongated flames. Isadora’s illustrations are a feast of color and movement.

Firebird Firebird by Demi, 1994.

Demi uses Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales (1916) as a basis for her picture book The Firebird. Dimitri is an archer in service to the Tsar, and one day he happens upon the feather of the shining bird. Against the advice of his Horse of Power, he takes the feather to the Tsar, who coerces him with death threats to capture her and then, once he is successful, to bring the fairy princess Vassilissa back to be the ruler’s bride. This backfires when the princess and the archer fall in love, and Dimitri must complete impossible tasks involving a golden casket under the sea, a giant lobster and a cauldron of boiling water. Was the Horse of Power right? Will the Tsar be vanquished? Will true love triumph?

Sumptuously illustrated, Demi’s Firebird contains my favorite depiction of the Firebird herself. On the title page, she is wrapped around the font, gazing at her name. Demi has made her blaze with red, yellow and gold feathers that end in eyes like a peacock’s tail. The book teams with creatures, from the many birds, rabbits, squirrels and deer that join Ivan in the forest, to the fabulous animal motifs that appear in the palace roof, flags and gates. The marvelous lobster is lavender with gilded designs and bright orange feelers. With these visual highlights and the unusual twists in the storyline, Demi’s story will reward interested readers.

The Golden Mare, the Firebird, and the Magic Ring The Golden Mare, the Firebird and the Magic Ring retold by Ruth Sanderson, 2001.

With a few minor variations, this book follows the plot in Demi’s version above. Hero Alexi’s compassion for the Firebird, Yelena the fair and even the foolish Tsar is emphasized.

Sanderson is widely recognized for her fairy tale illustrations and the beauty of these is apparent from the cover, which blends sunset colors with the juxtaposition of the glowing orange Firebird with the golden horse and the falling sun over water.

Firebird Firebird by Jane Yolen, Illus. By Vladimir Vagin, 2002.

Yolen’s version is based on both the folktale and the Balanchine/Stravinsky ballet. Prince Ivan, lost in the forest of the wizard Kostchei the Deathless, finds and releases the Firebird for the promise of her continuing help. Next, he finds ten captured maidens, plus stone statues of noble men enchanted by the wizard. With the aid of the Firebird, Ivan must fight demons and slay Kostchei the Deathless in order to free the captives and win his bride.

Vagin pays homage to the Firebird’s folktale and ballet roots by giving readers the action for both. The upper ¾ s of each page lets the folktale unfold, and the remainder shows us the ballet as it would appear on stage. His Firebird fowl is a marvelous bird of yellow, green and red with wings in layers of red, pink, yellow and blue, and his ballerina Firebird wears a matching headdress and skirt of streaming red feathers. Hairy, horned and cloven hoofed demons attack Ivan in the top frame while in the ballet, costumed dancers complete with pointy beards and long noses jump around Ivan, who gazes intently at the Firebird’s feather. Readers will enjoy comparing the doings of two interpretations in one book.

No comments: