You are probably familiar with the Brothers Grimm story of the tailor whose cleverness outwits the obstacles placed before him by the king, who has promised half his kingdom and his daughter's hand in marriage. In time-honored fashion, the king demands more and more labors killing two giants, capturing a unicorn, taming a wild boar. This new version of The Brave Little Tailor begins with prophetic words: "Once upon a time in a far off land where things were often not what they seemed. . . ." Indeed, nothing in this book is what it seems at first glance. A Russian-born married couple who live in Germany, Olga Dugina and Andrej Dugin have a dark Northern European take on this rather lightweight Grimm story. They have illustrated a straightforward fairy tale with some of the strangest fantasies since Pieter Bruegel the Elder or Hieronymous Bosch. The tailor is mistaken for a great warrior after he kills seven flies with a single strike and begins wearing a belt that proclaims SEVEN AT ONE BLOW.
The cover illustration sets the tone for The Brave Little Tailor with this opening scene. The elaborately dressed tailor stands in a fantastic landscape, with his long pointed hat spearing an apple the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Around it, like planets around the sun, swarm beautifully detailed flies the size of owls.
Readers will wish the illustrations were even larger, because every corner is filled with outrageous details. In the tailor's shop, a gigantic fish sits in a bird cage and a man's face peers from within a hanging lamp. A dog-sized elephant walks upside down on the ceiling. (Elsewhere, several tiny elephants drink from a bowl in the floor like kittens.) The king's minions ride creatures that are half horse and half hornet. An extravagantly berobed and bonneted woman turns out to have the beak of a demonic bird. Beside the text, plants blossom into musical instruments and winged saltshakers carry threaded needles. Flower seeds have faces. What does all of this surreal imagery have to do with the story of the clever tailor? Not much. That's part of the fun the realization that Dugina and Dugin just as easily could have illustrated "Rumplestiltskin" or "Briar Rose." Their pictures emerge less from the story itself than from what it inspires in their rich imaginations. This is part of the triumphantly original feel of this new Brave Little Tailor.