Once upon a Time …

12 2004 Kultura English
obálka čísla

Since ancient times people in every land have invented and told stories, but here in this country before the nineteenth century efforts to record such tales and give them a literary form were very rare. This was mainly due to specific local historical and linguistic factors, but also to the relatively late emergence of the fairy-tale as a separate literary genre. Beginning from roughly the 1830s, and under the influence of Romantic theories originating in Germany, scholars and writers began to také an interest in oral folk tales and customs. Books appeared on Czech customs, wheater lore, folk songs, legends and fairy-tales (or folk-tales, as they were then called). These did not offer precise, literal versions of that the collectors had copied down, but rather literary adaptations of what they had heard, a verbal treasure trove which at that time was still being passed on orally.

Today the great exemplars of this particular aspect of the country´s national and linguistic revival remain Karel Jaromír Erben (1811 – 1870) and Božena Němcová (1820 – 1862), whose fairy-tales represent the classical form of Czech folk narrative.

In all likelihood, Božena Němcová´s skill as a teller of tales goes back to her childhood, when as the young Barunka Panklová she listened eagerly to the stories told by her grandmother, a simple countrywoman who had nevertheless travelled widely along-side her soldier husband. After his death she settled down in a small village in the Eagle Mounties, and later moved to Ratobořice near Česká Skalice in eastern Bohemia to live with her daughter. Barunka was then a young girl of five. The school in Česká Skalice still stands, though it has been modernized. Here the future writer attended classes for only three years. At the age of ten she was sent to a better-off family for „finishing“. It was there that she discovered the world of books – though at that time, naturally enough, this meant books written in German. So the question arises as to where she acquired her extraordinary feel for Czech style, which was so accomplished that her works had a profound effect on Czech prose in general, and not just fairy-tales. It would seen that its roots lay in oral narrative, in the fairy-tales that she sought out and listened to in so many places throughout Bohemia and Slovakia. She absorbed the general form of spoken Czech as well as dialects, while with the help of friends and by moving in patriotic cultural circles she taught herself literary Czech.

Němcová´s National Folk-Tales and Legends first appeared in 1845 – 46 in a seven-volume edition that included such tales as "How Jaromil Found Happiness", "The Devil and Kate" and "The Clever Peasant-woman from the Mountains", fairy-tales full of magic but also notable for their realistic features. The second edition (1854 – 58) ran to fourteen volumes. These included some of Němcová´s best-known and most charming tales: "The Princess with the Golden Star on Her Forehead", "Salt Rather than Gold", Prince Bayaya". Her fairy-tales as well as her novel Granny (1855), a self-styled" picture of country life" with strong patriotic overtones, remained a source of inspiration even in the twentieth century.

Not only was the folk-tale tradition carried on by new generations of writers, but especially after World War II her folk-tales served as a source of inspiration for many directors of both feature film (in particular Jiří Trnka and his charming animated version of "Prince Bayaya" as well as for playwrights and authors of television productions.

Karel Jaromír Erben´s interest in folklore was more ethnographically-oriented and covered a wider range than that of his younger contemporary Božena Němcová. In the 1840s he concentrated his efforts as a collector on folk verse. After many years he managed to publish the results of his research in a thick volume entitled Popular National Czech Songs and Nursery Rhymes (1864). His intention was to do the same for Czech folktales, which he was collection and working on the same time. However, these never appeared in book form during his lifetime. Much of his time was taken up by his job as an archivist as well as his activities as an editor and translator, and from his childhood he had also suffered from bad health. For this reason, although he published several prose fairy-tales in magazines – for example "The Three Spinners" and "Boil, Pot, Boil" – he was never able to bring his great project to completion.

Luckily enough, however, at the beginning of the twentieth century the enthusiastic and energetic literary critic Václav Tille colected Erben´s fairy-tales and in 1905 published them under the title the latter had chosen, Czech Fairy-Tales. Today many of them are regarded as central to the Czech literary tradition, familiar to and beloved by all Czechs: "The Three Golden hairs of Grampa Knowall, "Princess Goldie", "Tall, Broad and Sharp-eyes", "The Firebird and Reddy the Fox". They are remarkable for their sophisticated but economical style, and add to the magic of the traditional fairy-tale a certain mythological and fantastic dimension.

But the world of Czech folk-tales also includes animal tales and didactic stories, which have more in common with fables than with the miraculous folk-tale. Nevertheless, these purposeful stories must also be taken into account. For this is where it all begins – when a child listens, the fairy-tale returns to its origins, to the world of the oral. Of course today few mothers or grandmothers have mastered the art of telling fairy-tales, and so they turn to a book, and the verbal magic of the world of fairy-tales is preserved.

An ideal form for this purpose is For the Little Ones, a selection of fairy-tales and nursery rhymes from the work of Božena Němcová edited by Václav Tille (under pseudonym Václav Říha). First published in 1915, it has run through countless editions since, and is currently available under the Albatros imprint. The book begins and ends with humorous tales that will satisfy children when they keep begging for a story, and in between there are several tales of a strongly didactic nature. These include "The Cock and the Hen" and "The Disobedient Kids" as well as "The Gingerbread House" and "Peterkin". The latter two have a happy ending, and are still told to children today in this form. There is hardly a Czech alive who has not heard as a child that "Peterkin was a little boy and he lived with a stag who had golden antlers." The former two tales are also widely known, but they, on the contrary, end unhappily, more realistically. "By the time the hen ran about and gathered up everything and brought a drop of water from the well back to the poor cock, she found him dead." But the natural assumption where fairy-tales are concerned is that they will turn out happily, and this case is not an exception. For the version of the tale that is universally preferred ends as folows: "The heavens felt pity on the cock and sent down dew on the meadow, and they well gave its water to the hen. She pecked it up in her beak, and when she slipped it down the cock´s throat, the pip was freed and the cock jumped to his feet, beat his wings and cried out merrily ´Cock-a-doodle-do!´And never again was he selfish, and never again did he fail to share everything with the hen." The author of this version is František Bartoš (1837 – 1906), who drew on Erben´s tradition as a collector and was the first person in this country to try and uncover the whole range of oral production relating to children, including customs and ways of trating children. His ethnographic collection Our Children (1888) was the first major work in the field: is there sections ("Children in the Family", "Children among Themselves", "Children in the Village") include nursery-rhymes, riddles, weather-lore, superstitions, sayings, fairy-tales, children´s games and many other oral creations. In addition to this work, which was intended for a specialized public, he also published A Bouquet of Folk Poetry (1906), with its central section on "Children´s Fairy-Tales".

Bartošś Bouquet, which is a treasure house of Czech oral folk procution for children, also includes motifs originating in the folk-tale traditions of other countries, the best-known examples being "The Beet", "The Animals and the Robbers" and "How the Old Man Bartered Everything Away".

In the course of the twentieth century the vitality of the folk-tale was reflected in discussions on the need for or negative influence of fairy-tales, in widespread scholarly work on the genre, as well as in the creation of new works. Two authors in particular expanded the genre with new motifs and their own highly distinctive narrative style – Josef Štefan Kubín (1864 – 1965) and Jiří Horák (1884 – 1975). Horák´s Czech Johnny (1940) was the first monograph cellection of fairy-tales about this folk hero in his many forms, ranging from the simpleminded country lad with a heart of gold to the brave hero who becomes a just ruler. The popularity of the book was heightened by the time when it was published, for even a book of fairy-tales became part of the nation´s struggle to remain independent and maintain its cultural traditions.

Vladimíra Gebhartová

Vydavatelem Českého dialogu je Mezinárodní český klub

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