It appears that, like many of us, Wendy Froud and Terri Windling were more interested in the faery court of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream than in Demetrius, Helena, or any of the other human characters. A Midsummer Night’s Faery Tale contains some of the same cast as Shakespeare’s famous play — King Oberon and Queen Titania for instance — but some new players appear for the first time on this stage. The starring role belongs to a small faery named Sneezlewort Rootmuster Rowanberry Boggs the Seventh, also known as Sneezle. Supporting characters include faery godmothers, Uncle Starbucket the troll, the oldest oak at the Sacred Heart of Old Oak Wood, and a faery named Twig. Together, they tell the story of another Midsummer Night, and of a Midsummer Night’s Gathering that almost goes wrong.
Combining traits from both Bottom and Puck, Sneezle is clearly meant to steal the show. At two hundred, Sneezle is finally old enough to stay up late on Midsummer Night and witness the annual Faery Queen’s Gathering. He wanders around all day, looking for a way to help prepare for the evening’s festivities, but he’s too small to help the tree elves and the faery godmothers polish the stars, and he’s too young to understand the intricacies of faery music. Group after group of busily working faeries turns him away, but as he stands unnoticed in the shadows, he discovers a dreadful secret. It seems that the Faery Queen, Titania herself, has fallen into an enchanted sleep from which no one can awaken her. Three of the queen’s handmaidens have also gone missing, and there is no one who can go and bring the Queen’s crown from the Sacred Heart of Old Oak Wood. Oberon the King is forced to turn to Sneezle and a small tailor faery named Twig for help. As Sneezle accomplishes his quest, he discovers just what his place is in the faery world.
It’s a simple tale, containing age-old fairy tale motifs. On his journey, Sneezle encounters a beautiful trickster faery who speaks him fair and plays him foul. He finds a magical sword named Truesight, made by Wayland, the faery smith. He meets in turn three animals, a mouse, a raven, and a white deer, who help him on his way. In return for their aid, they ask only that Sneezle use Truesight to cut off their heads. Over and over, Sneezle learns that things are not always what they seem. Sneezle himself belongs to that prestigious band of unlikely heroes who often go by the name of Jack, or Simple Hans, or the youngest brother. Like them, he works through misfortunes, learns by his mistakes, and arrives safely in the end, all because he has the qualities of a true fairy tale hero: a generous nature and a pure desire to see good accomplished.
Even if this tale were merely words on a page, it would be enchanting; Terri Windling uses rich yet simple language to write a story that a small child can follow, yet whose lavish description and dreamlike symbolism will intrigue adults as well. But the true magic of this story is in the pictures. Unlike many stories, which emerge from a writer’s imagination and are later illustrated by an artist, this story begins with pictures — figures, to be more exact. The characters were envisioned by Wendy Froud, who with consummate artistry turned her visions into dolls. The dolls were then photographed in miniature woodland sets that overflow with intricate and whimsical details. In a sense, it is Windling’s words that “illustrate,” that describe the images which troop before the reader’s eyes. The lavish scenes unfold on page following page in such a way that it is as much like watching a play as reading a story.
Froud’s faeries are as diverse as the woodlands they people. With his small, downturned donkey ears and tufted tail, Sneezle reminds the reader of a furry nut, his face impish yet wistful. Uncle Starbucket, the troll, has a curved, hedgehog back; the guardian of the Wood’s Sacred Heart has a face like a squashed mushroom; and little Twig’s ragged wings are reminiscent of a battered moth. Yet the faeries of the high court are striking in their ethereal beauty. Oberon’s face contains a balance of delicacy and majestic strength, and when the faery lady Rianna tries on Titania’s dress, she seems to float in a mist of cobwebs and starlight.
Not solely a visionary, Froud clearly possesses strong technical skills as a doll maker and set designer. Her figures are realistic down to the smallest details; their skin looks like skin, their eyes twinkle, and their personalities are evident in their gestures and their clothing. She also has the ability to create and pose figures in motion. Her characters appear to be fully engaged in each task they are doing; they aren’t merely stiff Barbies standing in front of backdrops. The sets themselves are fully realized. They are designed with depth, with three-dimensional figures and objects in the background as well as the foreground. Props include actual full-size flowers and fern fronds, pebbles, small nutshells, and all sorts of other forest flotsam, juxtaposed with Froud’s faery figures, ranging in size from thumbnail pixies to graceful creatures as tall as harebells. This level of detail makes the pictures a delight to study. The observant reader is bound to smile when he or she notices that one of the pictures on the wall in Uncle Starbucket’s burrow is of a troll posed as the Mona Lisa.
While this book is chiefly a work of collaboration between Froud and Windling, it would clearly never have gotten off the ground without its “silent” third partner. Froud designed the story as a series of three-dimensional scenes. To turn these scenes into flat pictures that would fit on a book’s pages required the work of a gifted photographer — John Lawrence Jones. Assisted by Brian Froud, Jones has done an amazing job with these photographs. Given a woodland setting, light is a crucial element in the scenery — and not natural light alone, but magical light. The pictures are full of the golden-green glow of sunny afternoon and the shimmer of twilight, the iridescence of gossamer wings and the twinkle of faery jewels. Jones uses photographic techniques to make the shadows appear endlessly deep and mysterious, and to make the more ethereal faeries appear to shine from within. His work, combined flawlessly with Froud’s scenes and Windling’s prose, gives collaboration its true meaning.
This is not just a book. It is an experience.
(Simon & Schuster, 1999)