The Magic Circle: Stories and People in Poetry – edited by Louis Untermeyer, illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush
Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1952
Readers of my blog know that Joe Krush, and his late wife Beth (1918-2009) are among my most favorite illustrators in the world of children’s books. (Here is my Horn Book article published on the occasion of Joe’s centenary three years ago, and some of my posts about the couple’s work from this blog can be found here and here and here and here and here and here). Their style incorporates so many artistic styles and historical allusions, but it can never be imitated. In addition to the many novels which their pictures brought to life, transforming them in a way which no other artists’ work would have matched, they illustrated a classic collection of poetry for young people, The Magic Circle. The book is organized into sections, each one with a title which represented the value of its era, even if they now seem dated. There are “Strange Tales,” “Gallant Deeds,” “All in Fun,” and yes, “Our American Heritage.” But this post is not about the changing perspective on what constitutes “American,” “gallant,” or “fun.” The point here is the pictures.
An excerpt from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “A Knight,” portrays a knight, a squire, and a prioress, as envisioned by the Krushes. The one woman in the trio is seated side saddle on a horse, her partly veiled face looking out at the reader. Her sleeves are covered in arabesque patterns in the elaborate filling of space in black and white lines so typical of Beth and Joe. While the knight looks preoccupied with his latest deeds, she is positively serene. As Untermeyer’s adaptation asserts, “She was all goodness and a tender heart.” The Krushes excelled at depicting goodness, although they drew quite a few villains, too. The prioress’s wimple has cross-hatched lines, matched by those on her fine cheekbones. One shoe protrudes from the bottom of her gown. Here we are in the Middle Ages, courtesy of Beth and Joe Krush’s deep feeling for beauty.
We meet another woman from a different social class in “Molly Malone,” the folk poem about a poor Dublin fishmonger and her tragic end. Molly is no high-class prioress, but she is every bit as lovely if much less constrained as Chaucer’s character. Instead of wearing elaborate footwear, she is barefoot, pushing her cart as she loudly hawks “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!” The many tiers of her skirt seem to emit tiny stars. Her two braids fly in the wind, and she is strong enough to push the heavy cart with one hand while using the other to project her voice. She does look extremely happy for someone who, as we all know “died of a fever of which none could relive her.” But that was later. In the picture, Beth and Joe Krush pay homage to her tough and wild heart.
Happy 103rd birthday to Joe Krush, a national treasure!