An African Folktale

An African Folktale
Willow Legge

Guildford: Circle Press Publications, 1979
Edition 62/200
Smithsonian Libraries

An African folktale by Willow Legge, 1979. Why the Sun. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

An African Folktale is an adaptation of a traditional tale told by the Efik people of southeastern Nigeria about why the sun and the moon live in the sky.    Briefly, it goes like this:

"Long ago, the Sun and the Water lived together in friendship on earth.  The Sun, having often visited the Water at his home, returns the invitation and the Water accepts.  But when Water arrives at Sun’s house with all his people – all the sea creatures – he overflows it, forcing the Sun and his wife, the Moon, to flee the earth and go to live in the sky, where they remain to this day."

An African folktale by Willow Legge, 1979. Mauve Octopus. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

This tale has appeared in several books,[1] but none as imaginatively illustrated as Willow Legge’s.  Here, brightly colored silk-screened, flat, and elemental depictions of sun and moon, water and sky contrast sharply with pure white intaglio prints of water’s “people”—a seahorse, a shrimp, a crab, an octopus, and a nautilus—to bring the tale vividly to life.  The detailed rendering of the sea creatures reflects the precision of the Victorian encyclopedia illustrations that Legge emulated.

An African folktale by Willow Legge, 1979. Image of Sun and Moon v2. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

The eighteen intaglios were blind-embossed from carved linoleum plates.  All prints and text of the book are printed on 300 gsm Somerset mould-made paper.  The text was hand set and printed letterpress in 30 pt. Baskerville series 169 in ten unbound 4-page sections.  The cloth-covered clamshell box was made by Dorset Bookbinding, and the entire production carried out by the artist with the assistance of John Coleman, Cathy Down, and Ron King at Circle Press, England.

An African folktale by Willow Legge, 1979. Cover. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

The story is a classic just-so story about the friendship of Sun, Moon, and Water at a time when they all lived on earth.  As the readers/viewers slowly turn the pages of this beautifully designed book, they see how Water and his extended family of all sea creatures, invited to visit Sun and Moon, overflow the Sun’s house.  Sun and Moon are forced to flee from earth to Sky where they remain to this day.

An African folktale by Willow Legge, 1979. The Sun Promised. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

An African folktale by Willow Legge, 1979. The Sun and the Moon. African Art Museum artists' books exhibit research image.

*     *     *     *

This is the story of . . .

why the sun and the moon live in the sky.

Many years ago the sun and the water were great friends, and both lived on the earth together.

The sun very often used to visit the water, but the water never returned his visits.

At last the sun asked the water why it was that he never came to see him in his house.

The water replied that the sun’s house was not big enough, and that if he came with all his people he would drive the sun out.

The water then said, ‘If you wish me to visit you, you must build a very large compound; but I warn you that it will have to be a tremendous place, as my people are very numerous. . . 

 . . . ‘and take up a lot of room.’

The sun promised to build a very big compound, and soon afterward he returned home to his wife, the moon, who greeted him with a broad smile when he opened the door.

The sun told the moon what he had promised the water, and the next day he commenced building a huge compound in which to entertain his friend.

When it was completed, he asked the water to come and visit him the next day.

When the water arrived, he called out to the sun and asked him whether it would be safe for him to enter, and the sun answered, ‘Yes, come in, my friend.’

The water then began to flow in, accompanied by the fish and all the water animals.

Very soon the water was knee-deep, so he asked the sun if it was still safe, and the sun again said, ‘Yes,’ so more water came in.

When the water was level with the top of a man’s head, the water said to the sun,

‘Do you want more of my people to come?’

The sun and the moon answered, ‘Yes,’ not knowing any better, so the water flowed in, until the sun and moon had to perch themselves on top of the roof.

Again the water addressed the sun, but, receiving the same answer, and more of his people rushing in, the water very soon overflowed the top of the roof,

and the sun and the moon were forced to go up into the sky where they have remained ever since.

*     *     *     *

About the Artist

Willow Legge is a British artist best known as a portrait sculptor.  She studied sculpture at Chelsea School of Art in the early 1950s.  From 1987 to 2000 she worked at Madame Tussauds, London, making portraits of celebrities.  So how did this portrait sculptor come to create an artist’s book?  Her venture into the realm of artists’ books arose from her marriage to and collaboration with fellow artist Ron King, who established Circle Press in 1967, an artistic enterprise focusing on fine art books that continues today.  In addition to An African Folktale Legge made three other artists’ books at Circle Press:  The Flea (1977), The Gnat and the Lion (1980), and Delicious Babies (1995).


Circle Press:

Courtney, Cathy.   The Looking Book: A Pocket History of Circle Press 1967-96.   London: Circle Press, 1996.

Dayrell, Elphinstone.   Folk Stories from Southern Nigeria, West Africa.  London: Longman, Green, 1910; reprinted New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, folktale 16, pages 64-65.

Radin, Paul, editor.   African Folktales and Sculpture.  New York: Bollingen Foundation; distributed by Pantheon Books, 1952, reprinted 1964, folktale 5, page 41.

[1]   Legge found this story in the anthology African Folktales and Sculpture (1952, reprinted 1964), but it was originally published in 1910 in Folk Stories from Southern Nigeria, West Africa, by the British colonial official Elphinstone Dayrell.