The Wild Swans by Has Christian Andersen, illustrations by Joanna Concejo, translation by Maria Giacobbe, Ed. Topipittori, February 2011
Every time I open up a book illustrated by Joanna Concejo my wrists start shaking with emotion, for how deeply her images arrive to my heart with no filters nor inhibitions. It's beyond my control, an emotional wave overwhelms me entirely, leaving me breathless, as if the most beautiful and sad memories came out of their tidy drawers all at once and started dancing all over my body.
When I learned that Giovanna and Paolo, our Topi, had assigned her one of the most beautiful and difficult texts by Andersen I deeply rejoiced, and not because I'm sadistic: this was one of the stories my granny used to tell me more frequently and I couldn't wait to plunge into the interpretation Joanna would have given of it.
It's not easy to confront with a classic, least of all if the classic is signed Hans Christian Andersen, because the psychological complexity of his tales is heavy, because rendering his melancholic and poetical atmospheres is extremely difficult, because the harshness of his stories seems at times hopeless (I have vivid memories of the anguish I felt when, child, I read The Little Mermaid). Giving essence to such a refined and restless soul is not simple.
This tale, in particular, is extremely complex because it represents the fall from childhood's paradise towards the abyss that goes along with adolescence, between disenchantment and inability to communicate, between the loss of one's nearest and dearest and the desperate effort of bringing them back.
The main character, Elisa, is alone. Left to her own devices, every minute of her life is spent in the memory of her beloved brothers, that she will find again only almost adult, and of the nice moments spent with them. As in almost all traditional tales, advocate of the fall is the cruel stepmother who alienates the children from their father condemning them to an imposed silence, deriving from the mutation into swans for the sons and from the forceful separation for Elisa.
As suitable to an appropriate tale's hero, Elisa is at first a child and then a young woman of great virtues: beautiful, polite, with a firm faith, she places her and her swan-brothers' destiny in the hands of Divine mercy, scrupulously following the precepts she's being given without a doubt, with no sinking. Despite physical suffering, caused by the nettles she's obliged to spin to make the shirts that will break the witch-stepmother's spell, despite all the risks she runs, the young woman will bring her task to the conclusion assuring her brothers and herself the longed happy ending.
Joanna has given an amazing interpretation of this tale, full of symbolic cross-references and noble moments. Her illustrations reaffirm Elisa's loneliness in several ways, as it happens in the image here below, where the nettles form a sort of frame/prison that isolates the beautiful princess from the rest of the world:
Depicted from behind, bent on her own piece of work, the young woman looks like a twig bending over to life's moodiness: she doesn't address us while we observe her, she can't say a word, otherwise her brothers would die.
I would like to recall your attention on the first image of this post, on the mirror-image portraying the shape of a swan to be precise, because this illustration recalls with great strength the idea of presence/absence of the brothers: on the left side of the image the swan looks like a ghost, only vaguely sketched, and the little character in the distance, as big as a little speck, represents young Elisa wondering with no precise intent, looking for those she can feel without really seeing; on the right side nothing is left of the swan if not its negative, the silhouette, almost as if to remark the ideas of distance, unattainability, absence.
Absence, together with desperation for the impossibility of carrying on the task of weaving the eleven shirts, is recaptured in this image as well
where, to a more descriptive part where we can see tiny knights galloping towards the castle whose king has decided to take Elisa with him and to soon marry her, is powerfully opposing the image on the right, a portrait of the young woman, visibly hopeless, whose image is at times eclipsed by those embroidered disks, transparent, appearing as well in the flyleaves of the book. The presence of those objects seems almost to be emphasizing the sensation of emptiness that overwhelms the girl when she is parted from her brothers, her body is almost maimed, erased, at the same time the shape and the positioning in flock the illustrator gave those disks seems to be recalling the idea of travel and the temporary nature of the situation.
In the last illustration I propose, once again Elisa turns her back to us, once more she appears as the solitary hero, framed by the crowd that between fury and incredulity besieges her
Only favourable wardens the birds, observing the scene at a distance, as if to symbolize the benevolent glance of heavens.
To end with, please observe the wonderful harmony of Joanna's tables, drawn using pastels, their balance in the use of colour, the gentleness of her stroke.
Beautiful the translation by Maria Giacobbe.
This book doesn't cost "half of the kingdom", it doesn't even cost as much as Elisa's precious book therefore, if I was able to arouse your curiosity, I suggest that you to pay a visit to the bookshop (or to the publisher's website).
The book has been published simultaneously in french, for Editions Notari.
Copyright© text and images Topipittori 2011. Images have been reproduced with the permission of the publisher, all reproduction is strictly forbidden.