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from Secret Face
Inger Edelfeldt
Translated by Sarah Death
With an introductory comment on the illustrations by the author

This article appeared in the 2008:1 issue.

A story that is both fantasy and reality – how does one set about illustrating that?

Well, with realistic vignettes for the modern-day episodes, and with classical storybook illustrations for the fairytale chapters.

The story Astrid’s aunt writes for her while she is sick in bed is slightly whimsical in tone, and that may be one reason why I chose to illustrate it in a style influenced by English tradition: the pictures in some editions of Lewis Carroll’s works, for example, and those for C. S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles. It is a deliberately old-fashioned style, almost like copperplate engraving, and not generally found in books for young people.

In addition, Astrid’s situation is that mixture of vulnerability and domesticity which I also associate with many of the main characters in English books for older children.

Aside from that, my inspiration has come from many different sources – from the symbolic world we encounter in psychology and the interpretation of dreams, via traditional folktales to the stories of writers from around the world, such as Hans Christian Andersen. Prince Charming is actually called “Il Principe Azzurro” in Italian – hence my Prince Blue, who because he is blue, then borrows some of the features of Indian gods. So yes, it is a blending together, as in a dream.

But as in dreams, there is also a mysterious thread running through it all, which in this case is linked to Astrid growing up, and her Aunt Malin’s experiences.

(PS To come back to the pictures, it is also true that I have illustrated fantasy before, including Tolkien many years ago, one example being the 1985 Tolkien calendar for the British publisher Allen & Unwin. And there may well be traces of that experience in some aspects of my latest pictures.

I also had the honour of illustrating Philip Pullman’s award certificate when he won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the prestigious ALMA prize, the year before last. That was great fun, because I am a huge admirer of his books.)

Inger Edelfeldt


Introduction to the translation:

Teenage Astrid is forced to stay with her bohemian, book-writing Aunt Malin while recovering from chicken pox. The extracts below are from the unorthodox fairytale Malin makes up to distract her recuperating niece. Princess Primavera is depressed after the ball the King and Queen have thrown for her thirteenth birthday, finding it hard to resign herself to the fact that she is expected to marry soon. She receives a visit from the mysterious Manyskin (so named for all the different pelts that make up his cloak), the supernatural forest being who is secretly entrusted by the Queen with making the gossamer-thin masks that conceal Primavera’s green skin from her subjects’ eyes. Manyskin is her father, although she does not know it yet.


A Blighted Birthday

[...] If only she could spend her life in this silent chamber, alone with her dreams and her singing! “That is all I crave!” she told herself.

“Is that really all you want?” came the voice of Manyskin, and there he stood by her bed, unannounced as usual.

“So you turned up after all?” said Primavera. “Why didn’t you come in time for the party?”

“There would have been a riot!” he said, “There usually is, when someone like me turns up.”

“Would they have tried to hurt you?”

“They could TRY, all right!” He laughed as if the idea amused him. “There would have been an unseemly fuss, I am sure.”

“Well perhaps that might actually have been fun,” said the Princess.

“Not at all,” he retorted sharply, as if to impress his answer on her. “I and those like me are destined to work secretly. Incidentally, are you not curious about your birthday presents?”

“Eugh, no! I shall open the rest of them tomorrow. There are far too many, and none of them are to the person I really am.”

“You silly girl!” he said. “I mean the presents I have brought you.”

“A new mask already?” sighed Primavera. “And just when I’ve got this terrible Migraine! I seem to have inherited it from Papa the King.”

“I can guarantee you inherited nothing at all from him,” he said. “No, it is not a new mask! Look!”

He gave her a large, green leather case, which proved to contain a beautifully crafted lute, shaped and ornamented like a large leaf. The silky wood still retained its scent, the smoothly shaped underside of the finger board fitted perfectly into her hand, and she discovered when she plucked the strings that their sound was as fresh as spring water and the blowing wind.

Suddenly her headache was gone, and she smiled gratefully at Manyskin, who proceeded to give her another present. It was not much to look at from the outside: an ugly little box made of greying wood. She tried to open it, but although it appeared to be unlocked, it would not yield.

“What enchantment is this?” she asked, trying to conceal her vexation.

“When you are truly ready to use it, you will be able to open it,” he said.

“Oh yes?” She shook the box but it made no sound.

“Do not go idly mislaying it!” he counselled.

“And the lute, will you teach me to play it?”

He shook his head. “You will teach yourself.” He seemed to be readying himself to depart – if his customary evaporation into thin air could be called departure.

“The suitors!” said the Princess. “What shall I do about them? The letters of introduction are already trickling in, and the elimination rounds will be starting soon. I hope nobody gets through them. Then I shan’t even need to meet any of them!”

“Come on, now,” said Manyskin. “It cannot be all that hard to get hold of a hair from the Demon’s tail, a lump of cheese from the Moon and a stone from the Outermost Edge of the World. And most of the adventurers and rogues should be able to manage the other preliminary tasks.”

“Rogues? Whoever are they?”

“Oh, ingenious whippersnappers.”

“But then there’s the final task. The decider,” said the Princess. I have found out everything now, how it’s all going to work. But they’re keeping that final task so secret, maybe even you don’t know about it?”

“Yes I do. The suitor will have to be able to tolerate seeing your face, without a mask, in a private chamber.”

“Yes, and anyone who proves incapable will be beheaded, so as not to give away the secret!” She shivered. “But how will they judge who’s incapable?”

He looked her straight in the eye. “I think that will be for YOU to decide. And there you have your chance to avoid marrying them.”

“But if I reject all of them, it’ll be MY fault that they die, won’t it?”

“Well you cannot marry all of them!”

“But if I marry the very first one, then none of them will have their heads chopped off!” The Princess could feel her migraine coming back.

Manyskin wrapped himself in his cloak. “Well, do you want to marry just anybody, simply to save his life?” he said, stifling a yawn.

She was quite beside herself at the thought of what lay ahead. “Don’t go!” she begged. “Can’t I come with you? Can’t I marry YOU? Save me!” She stretched her arms out to him, shocked at her own behaviour.

He drew back. “That is impossible, unfortunately.” And then he was gone.

Afterwards she felt lonelier than ever, and filled with shame at having behaved with such desperation.

But when she picked up the lute, she found that its sound consoled her, and she sat for several hours, absorbed, finding notes to fit her song.

She was surprised that it made her happy, in spite of everything that clearly awaited her.


Suitors and Sorcery

The suitors came from all over the land, and from surrounding kingdoms. Some were as ugly as sin but as charming as hungry cats, others as handsome as thoroughbreds but as dry as stale bread. Others managed to combine style, charm and quick wits, but there was still something missing.

Apart from bringing the compulsory gifts of demon’s tail hair (fancy the Demon having such a variegated and hairy tail!), moon cheese of many kinds and stones from the Outermost Edge of the World, they also had to be good at fencing, drain the Court drinking horn Monumental Gulp at a single draught without behaving ridiculously, and then immediately shoot at a peppercorn and hit it.

Luckily, not everyone managed all this, but those who did bring it off were left to sober up in a cold, draughty, inhospitable chamber, so they would be in a really foul and miserable mood when, heads and souls aching, they faced the final task: to react with composure, good breeding and warmth when the amazing truth about the Princess’s Appearance was revealed.

Since they had no idea in advance what the final task comprised, or what the penalty for failing it would be, they perhaps did not realise the seriousness of the situation. To be honest, quite a few of them had been rather superior and nonchalant during the preliminary round, as you can be when you have been brought up in certain high-born circles.

The Princess, for her part, sat on a raised throne wearing a very unflattering dress, with the daylight falling from a window straight onto her exposed green skin and the cropped green hair usually hidden by her blonde wig. She said nothing, but watched the suitor. Her sympathy had worn thinner with every passing day: the axe had already fallen on ten or more suitors’ heads. They simply hadn’t remained calm or respectful enough during the task. Or they hadn’t been honest. One had laughed, one had asked her to wipe off the dye, one had thrown up, one had got hiccups, one had started declaiming old poetry in a hoarse, nervous voice. They had all been taken away to the execution chamber, and the Princess’s guilty conscience made itself felt mainly in the form of a permanent, dull stomach ache, nightmares and a slight twitch around the eyes. Oh yes, and a feeling that everything was misty and unreal – as if the main player in these ceremonies was someone else, not really her – although she knew very well that she, Princess Primavera, was the one sending the fortune-hunters to their deaths.

One of them, who had fallen on one knee and made a long speech about the beauty of the colour green, praising everything from the grass to the famous green aurora borealis in the Fringes, had tempted her briefly, but she had to discount him. The UTTERLY perfect suitor must exist somewhere, otherwise the tasks were pointless! And the more suitors that were executed, the more important it was that this should have happened to make way for the Right One!

But eventually the whole process became rather awkward. As suitor after suitor failed to return to his family, rumours started circulating. Admittedly the King and Queen could behave as they liked – they were the King and Queen, after all! – but as the rumours spread, so the stream of suitors slowed. Only the sort with hugely inflated egos continued to present themselves (they naturally remained convinced they would succeed, right up to the last test) and their very conceitedness obliged the Princess to reject them.

One of them said: “I succeed in everything I do, so why should I not succeed in loving a green princess?”

The Princess had him executed immediately, which wasn’t the least surprising, because who wants to be told that someone sees it as a feat if he manages to love you?

When the stream of suitors had dried up completely, the King and Queen took the Princess aside for a serious talk. They reproached her for her cruelty.

“But I was only following your orders!” she said defiantly. “All those who seemed not to like what they saw, had to go!”

“There’s no need to take things so literally all the time,” said the Queen. “You can modify your way of looking at things, you know, so that what you see looks all right. You’ll never get married otherwise.” She stole a glance at the King, whose thoughts were elsewhere.

Feeling tired, dirty and sickened by all she had had to go though, Primavera longed only to sleep; to sleep and dream. Perhaps it was only in your dreams you could bear to live; perhaps she should try to set up her Kingdom there?

Just then she remembered what she had dreamt the night before her thirteenth birthday. And hadn’t Manyskin told her to pay heed to her dreams?

“I shall only marry the Blue Prince,” she announced firmly.

“What nonsense is this?” muttered the King.

The Queen hushed him; a cunning expression had come into her face.

“Really?” she asked. “If we find one of those, a blue prince, then all our troubles are over? How will we recognise him?”

The Princess didn’t want to say that she had met him in a dream, or that she hadn’t had a chance to see his face.

“He’s BLUE,” she said, adding out of sheer cussedness: “And he can sing and play so beautifully he could move a stone to tears.”

“In that case,” said the Queen, “we must send the messengers of the Court to hunt for such a man the length and breadth of the kingdom. And if we find him, there will be a wedding. You must promise me that.” The Queen paused for thought. “You must love him, and swear it on your life! On your life and strength! If you break a vow like that, then you will die!”

For by now she was sick and tired of Primavera’s defiance. And somewhere deep inside, in a place she would never reveal to anybody, she wished the Princess a really hopeless Prince, to make her spoilt daughter finally understand that life was not a bed of roses. It was a lesson she had had to learn herself, and goodness knows, it had made her strong and cunning. So really she had Primavera’s best interests at heart, she thought. Because it would surely be a good thing for the Princess to grow strong and cunning?


Inger Edelfeldt’s practice of illustrating her own books for young people goes back to Missne och Robin: En berättelse om skogen (Missne and Robin: A Tale of the Forest, AWE/Gebers, 1980).

She has also illustrated the covers of many of her novels and short story collections, such as:

  • Kamalas bok (Kamala’s Book, AWE/Gebers 1986),
  • Den förunderliga kameleonten (The Strange Chameleon, Norstedts, 1995).

Her picture books for younger children include:

  • Den förskräckliga lilla mamsellens stol (The Dreadful Little Madam’s Chair, Bonniers Junior, 1989),
  • Nattbarn (Night Child, Alfabeta, 1994).

She is also a prolific cartoonist, with books such as Hondjurets samlade värk (The Collected Erks of the Female of the Species, Alfabeta 2000).

Inger Edelfeldt is currently working on a cycle of folk tales for adults, Namnbrunnen (The Well of Names), to be published in September 2008 by Norstedts förlag.