East of the Sun West of the Moon
I still have my childhood copy of Mercer Mayer's East of the Sun West of the Moon. It's one of my most beloved treasures from that time. When I pick it up it resonates with the same magic it held so many years ago. The story follows a resilient girl's difficult quest to rescue her prince. Overcoming fear and enduring hardship, she encounters magical sprits of the earth who encourage her along the way.
The illustrations are utterly captivating, and I think they will always be my standard of what to strive for in drawing and painting. I remember studying every detail, amazed at the luminous quality of the girl's skin - how her hands were so perfectly rendered. The exquisite balance of color and detail in each scene.
Mayer has adapted the Norwegian folk tale by adding wonderful mythical characters of his own creation. In his telling, the girl makes a promise to a frog in order to save her dying father. When the frog seeks marriage as payment, she carelessly, if unintentionally, kills it. Death transforms the frog into a prince who is immediately spirited away to a troll ruled kingdom that lies east of the sun and west of the moon. Not only does she lose the prince, but her family and everything in her house, and she is left with nothing but rags. She begins a journey to rescue him, pointed in the right direction by the Moon. The first challenge is trekking through mountains of ice filled with frozen monsters. This illustration fueled my imagination, the ice looks so real and the monsters so mysterious - what are they and why are they trapped?
She bravely makes her way through the ice to visit the Salamander, who lives in a chamber of fire, and knows everything that is in the heart of the world. The Salamander tells her, "I know what is in your heart and in the heart of the youth, and I know your hearts are breaking. But this kingdom does not lie in the fiery heart that I know. All I know of this kingdom is that it is east of the sun and west of the moon, and if you reach it you will not find a welcome within." The Salamander directs her to Father Forest, who knows everything in the body of the world. She is given a gift and sent on. Each encounter is the same, she meets a compassionate powerful being who sends her on to the next.
The North Wind, who knows everything in the mind of the world, is able to carry her to the far off kingdom where she is able to rescue her prince. Each encounter is marked on the accompanying text page with one of the graphic icons from the front cover. The symbols add a special weight to the story, I loved seeing them on the cover every time I drew the book of the shelf. They feel like my first connection to the world of graphic design. Once you know the story inside, these icons tell it on their own.
I only knew Mercer Mayer from the delightful Little Critter books, and didn't realize this was also his work until I was much older. I have since discovered his classic fairy tales: Beauty and the Beast, and Sleeping Beauty, both are beautiful but this is my favorite. It's more unexpected. The heroine is steady and enduring, and pays for her foolishness with hard work and perseverance. Mainly though, I love the supernatural creatures she encounters, and the way they guide her.
The hardcover book is also a beautifully crafted object. The last page offers an explanation of Mayer's illustration process, from sketch to final. It identifies the text as Alphatype Weiss by Haber Typographers, Inc., handlettering by Julie Quan. The book is printed on Moistrite Matte and bound in G.S.B. Plum by A. Horowitz & Sons. The endpapers are Multicolor Textured Pueblo Gray by Lindenmeyr Paper Corporation. So many carefully thought out details enhance and add richness to this beautiful work.
I discovered Mayer is selling prints from this book and many others on his Etsy shop, and I was excited to see the Salamander featured as the header on his Facebook page. From the multitude of images he's created over the years, this one must be special to him too.
Published in 1980 by Four Winds Press