We’ve talked about Phoebe Gilman before, haven’t we? We talked about how I loved that she inspired us to do, to jump in and try things out. Well, one of the best proofs of that I can think of is Phoebe Gilman’s first book, The Balloon Tree. Already an artist, Phoebe made up a story for her daughter one day, and they liked it so much she wrote it down and illustrated it. She persisted in the face of multiple rejections, and all of her wonderful books are the result. She tells the story of how the book came to be in more detail here, along with some other fun tidbits.
In addition to being a truly wonderful book in its own right, and unfairly good for a first book, The Balloon Tree has particular resonance for me as the book where I finally found the aesthetic which has stayed with me my whole life. Look at these two pictures. This is from the book (apologies for the cellphone shot in bad lighting):
And this is from my ketubah, Jewish marriage certificate, commissioned from the marvellous Laya Crust:
No influence whatsoever, nope! And if you see any resemblance to Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry then you’re completely… accurate.
If you accuse me of just filling this blog post with images I want to stare at for hours, you’re also accurate. But it’s a funny thing: I had no idea about the Très Riches Heures or of medieval art or of anything to do with art when I was a kid first reading this book with my mother. And yet, here I am studying 14th- and 15th-century poetry, works from the period (more or less) which would have inspired Phoebe Gilman. If I wanted, I could probably blame my life’s work so far on her. I’m responsible for the unfinished dissertation, though.
Now, let’s think a little more about this 14th- or 15th-century influence. (And, no, I don’t think I’m taking this too seriously. I’m a freaking academic, people! Academics never think they’re taking things too seriously. That’s how we ended up with Middlemarch.) Excuse my alter-ego; she gets a little worked up. The point is that there’s the aesthetic from the illustrations and the story itself, and I think it’s fun to look at how they line up.
The story goes like this: Princess Leora, who loves balloons, lives with her father, the king, in a lovely castle in a small, happy kingdom. Happy, except for her uncle, the grouchy Archduke, whose appearance was drawn from Jan van Eyck’s portrait of Arnolfini:
When Leora’s father leaves for a tournament in a neighbouring kingdom, he leaves the Archduke in charge, with Leora to help him. In case of any problems, he tells Leora to release a bunch of balloons from the tower and he’ll see them and come home. The Archduke imprisons Leora in her chamber and orders all balloons to be popped, but she escapes to the Wizard and has him tell her how to solve the problem: she has to find one whole balloon before the moon fades and plant it in the courtyard while speaking a magic verse. She does, and the tree starts bearing balloons as the sun rises, thus summoning her father and saving the kingdom.
It’s a charming story, but with echoes of much, much older, darker stories. I’m warning you again: I’m an academic, and there’s no help for it. I could talk about how heart-warming the story is. How brave Leora is, and how great it is to have a strong girl winning the day. I could talk about how we all love balloons (except for my husband and father) and how fun the balloons are in this book. And that’s all true. But I’ve been waiting for years to think about whether the pictures are an overlay on a modern story, or whether there are older resonances to match the pictures, and I think there are.
Let’s start with the imprisonment in the chamber: how common is that? Very common. If you want the 14th C illustration to go with it, look up Charles d’Orléans as pictured in a manuscript of his own poetry (BL Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73). If you want a more apt historical comparison, there were fears in England in the 12th century that Prince John would steal the kingdom while Richard Coeur de Lion was imprisoned overseas. Queen Eleanor, their mother, was kept under house arrest for years. In my own area of study, Wales, imprisonment of family members was commonplace in family struggles over territory. Usurpation and imprisonment were occupational hazards of being nobility or royalty.
Thus, miraculous escapes from tyrannical rulers become a common aspect of folklore. There’s the story of Richard’s escape, of course, and then think about the story of King Arthur having all babies slain in an attempt to get rid of the baby who was to be his own downfall, his son Mordred. We’ve even got a Merlin equivalent in our story! It’s a gruesome story, and comparing killing babies to the attempt to pop all the balloons seems tasteless, but, well, it came to mind, I’m afraid. Of course, the Arthur story is just a free retelling of the Massacre of Innocents, which itself has strong overtones of the Egyptians killing all baby boys in Exodus. These stories always go farther back, somehow.
My point being that I think there are, if you’re willing to way overextend things, hints of historical undertones– even overtones!– to the story as well as the art. But it’s a fun book, not a serious or scary one. And that, too, spans both the art and the story, and that’s where we come to the balloons and the kick-ass Leora, and the kids helping kids to save the day. Any royalty from the 14th century would have killed to have Leora on their side. No, really, they would have killed, so maybe step back a little. And get a weapon. They would probably castrate your husband or send your wife to a convent, too. They weren’t nice; they wanted to win. Point being, someone with Leora’s courage and persistence is like the answer to those old historical problem stories’ prayers, and let’s not forget the friends who help her: the Wizard and the little boy in the cottage who sweetly gives up his last balloon to Leora. It’s a historical story turned into a modern fairy tale with a kick-ass female child heroine saving the day. And her daddy the king wears glasses, and she has cute bedroom slippers.
Are those just cute details and wish-fulfillment, though? I don’t think so. I think this is a story with roots, I really do. Artistic roots, historical story roots: they give the story depth. But the real depth is in how they’re used, and that comes from Phoebe Gilman’s own brain and own brush. The generosity, persistence, and strength of Leora and her father are much more important than the fear the old noble families of Europe lived with. They provide motivation for Leora to show her mettle, that’s all. And the beauty? That’s important, but rubber ducks in a warm family environment are more cuddly, in the end. Both matter. Both are important. But let’s not underestimate the sweetness in the illustrations of the king hugging Leora: after all, the real motivation in the story is family love, and Leora shows us that’s worth preserving.
But the balloons are worth preserving, too. Kids? Go get your parents to blow up some balloons. I’ll get one for my Changeling.