Guest Blogger: Kate Orgera (JHU Class of 2014, Writing Seminars)
As part of the “Introducing the George Peabody Library” intersession class, I’ve gotten to see and learn a lot of cool things at the George Peabody Library. It really is incredible how George Peabody was so generous to the city of Baltimore by basically commissioning the first public library in 1857 (completed in 1878), and a beautiful library at that! And yet his generosity in this and other areas is barely acknowledged by the world at large. In fact, it was Peabody’s contribution that inspired Johns Hopkins to donate his money towards a university - and where would I be right now if he hadn’t?
Getting to see all of these old, rare resources from the 19th century and beyond that the library has to offer has been incredible; Everything from medieval books, books mimicking medieval books, handwritten manuscripts, big books, tiny books, maps, 19th century reading glasses – even a 1929 edition of Winnie the Pooh!
With all of these cool books and more at my disposal, I really didn’t know where to start with my own personal research. I’m the kind of person who wants to know everything about anything! But as I am also taking the “Writing for Children” class at Hopkins, and have an interest in Arthurian Legend (which I’ll admit is partially due to the British TV series, Merlin, which is awesome btw), I thought it might be fun to bring some of those out into the open.
First off, we have this book of fairytales from 1915:
The cover and all the interior illustrations are quite beautiful. Plus, this book predates all the Disney and other film versions of the stories, so it’s interesting to see what differs. Let’s take “Beauty and the Beast,” for example. After all, popular opinion is that stepping into the Peabody is like this:
(And I’ll admit that was my first impression as well).
Belle does love books in this version of the tale as well:
But the Beast… well, the Beast is definitely a figure that differs based on interpretation:
Here is a picture of an 1896 edition of Moore’s Christmas classic, The Night Before Christmas. Imagine this on bookstore shelves over 100 years ago! :
Another Grimm Brothers fairytale in the collection, much rarer and certainly one I’ve never heard, of is Marienkind, gez. This book has been featured on the Peabody blog before, but I think it’s definitely worth bringing up again for the artwork. The book is laminated and well preserved, so much thanks to the people who dedicate so much time to preserving these treasures that people might not get to see otherwise.
Below is an illustration from the story when the protagonist, abandoned in the woods after disobeying Mary in heaven (yes, that Mary), is found by a king and taken back to his castle. I just really like the border work and the detail of the hair on this page:
This black-and-white illustration features a ghostly Mary taking one of the girl’s children, as she has still not confessed to the deed she did and the lie she told. One doesn’t often think of the Mother Mary as creepy, but this beautiful illustration definitely fits the bill:
Going down the path of disturbing children’s stories, there are two versions of a book of “funny” stories for “good” children to enjoy. Both published in 1859, one is called A Laughter Book of Funny Stories and Pictures, and the other is called Slovenly Peter, seen below:
You may be wondering why I put “funny” in quotation marks. Well, I suppose humor is subjective, so tell me, how humorous do you find this picture?
Yes, that is indeed a girl burning alive. Illustrated. In a children’s book.
The books feature a lot of tales of “naughty” children being brutally punished by karma for their misdemeanors. This one in particular has Pamela playing with matches, which does mean the ending makes sense. But another tale has a girl stung by a swarm of bees for eating too many sweets, and another has a girl’s leg broken in half and bleeding just for running around outside. Hard to imagine a children’s book with all that, but we must take into perspective that this was a different time, and different things were expected of children. That’s part of what’s great about the Peabody and libraries like it – we get a glimpse of what the past was like. Even if it’s kind of perverse.
Anyway, despite the disturbing content of the pictures, it is interesting to note that these were hand painted, as you can tell by the different colorings of the two versions.
Bridging the gap between the children’s lit and Arthurian legend topics is T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone from 1939. Here is the artwork within the cover:
This basically encompasses all that is fantasy, and features many of the characters in the story. Notice the archer at left in particular. What other famous literary character does that remind you of? (And don’t say Legolas). Looks a little like Robin Hood, doesn’t it? Well, a character called Robin Wood, along with Little John and Maid Marian, actually appear in one of young Wart’s adventures. Talk about a crossover!
Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory is probably one of the most well-known Arthurian texts. The 1893 two volume set at the Peabody is absolutely gorgeous, with art by Aubrey Beardsley, a famous English illustrator who, though he died at the young age of 25, was well-known as the most controversial artist of the Art Noveau period for his dark, perverse, and erotic pieces. This is somewhat touched upon in the work’s illuminations (art in the books that has no correlation with the story), which feature satyrs, angels, and women with their… lady parts showing. Below are the frontspiece illustration featuring Arthur vs. the Questing Beast (which looks a bit like a dragon) with a satyr in the background (though… I’m not really sure why):
And an illustration of the Lady of the Lake telling King Arthur and Merlin about Excalibur:
Also, this is a page telling about Arthur pulling the sword from the stone multiple times to prove who he was:
Note the Christian holidays associated with each pulling of the sword – Malory definitely made Arthur a Christian king (although I know of earlier texts which don’t). Candlemas is neither well-known nor popularly celebrated as a Christian holiday, though it apparently used to be a big feast day, right up there with Christmas. It marks the presentation of Jesus at the temple. I found Arthur pulling the sword on this day particularly neat because, well… Candlemas is traditionally celebrated on my birthday, February 2nd :)
Here is a rather tiny book (only 14 centimeters) from 1816 (originally written in 1634) about “Prince” Arthur and the knights, also by Sir Thomas:
Even for such a small book, the art is beautiful and well detailed.
There also is a surprising amount of tales of Arthur, Merlin, and the knights told in poetic form, many of which are at the Peabody library. I wanted to read through one of them, called Arthour and Merlin: a metrical romance (No, not that kind of romance), but well… you try to read this without your eyes blurring after awhile. And yes, it’s supposed to be English:
This is why spelling is important, people.
Now, we can’t talk about fairytales and Arthurian literature without discussing dragons. Though the Questing Beast in Malory is not a dragon, I still ask that we compare him and what we know of dragons to this picture from a 1961 recreation of a book of 1600s woodblock carvings called A Little Bestiary:
Very different, no? It’s interesting to see how different artists portray imaginary creatures. Plus, look at the caption: apparently people could figure out how to ride dragons like horses.
This is just a small sampling of the many beautiful and interesting books to be found at the George Peabody Library. Getting to explore this place has been a blast! But you don’t have to take a class to see what the library has to offer. It’s a public library for a reason after all – it would certainly make George happy to see it used! So check out the online catalogs on the JHU site and see what you can find! I guarantee you’ll find something interesting.