An Introduction to Traditional Slovak Folk Tales
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The Tale Tradition
In order to familiarize the reader with the landscape of the world of Slovak folk tales, we need briefly to consider the question, what is a folktale? Folklorists and other interested parties have long battled over the question of the “folk” (whose property the tales are) and the nature of the “oral tradition” (the manner in which the tales circulate). In Europe, and sometimes more broadly, a certain body of tales circulated among the largely illiterate population for centuries. This primarily oral tradition, however, was not isolated from the written literature of the time but, symbiotically, both drew upon it and contributed to it. These tales were the entertainment of all, from kings and queens, often themselves illiterate, to the lowliest peasant. As literacy advanced, literature began to distance itself from this body of tales. Church clerics condemned many tales as superstitious humbug and, later, the enlightened intelligentsia could freely look down upon these “popular” tales. Thus it was possible, on the eve of the nineteenth century, for a few romantic souls, searching for new artistic values and national cultural resources, to rediscover the “folk” and their tales, for the circulation of these tales, both orally and in popular chapbooks, had definitely moved to the lowest classes of the population.
Folktales are traditional both in the sense of belonging to a relatively stable body of tales that are in circulation – the tale tradition – and in the sense that these tales are told in communities where traditional community organisation and work habits provide occasion for the telling of tales and thus the need for the tales.
The tale narrator learns his tales from previous tellers and polishes his own tales within a community that is familiar with the tales and knows what it likes to hear. The latitude given to individual creativity and expression varies within these boundaries.
Who were the folktale narrators and when did they tell their stories? Research on the European tale tradition as it existed from the mid-nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth century suggests that storytelling communities included migrant working communities of craftsmen, soldiers, sailors, lumbermen, herdsmen, and those of similar occupations; village communities during communal work and winter evenings; and involuntary communities in hospitals and jails. What all of these communities have in common is long periods of communal idleness or quiet activity, which provides a need for entertainment and thus an occasion for storytelling. Stories might be told in turn, with everyone required to participate, or a gifted narrator might be invited along to shorten a long hour. Wandering craftsmen might trade an evening’s entertainment for a place to sleep and a meal. In the nineteenth century, journeymen from the Slovak part of the Austro-Hungarian empire travelled far and wide within the empire and beyond. In the course of their wanderings, they would meet other craftsmen and hear their tales – one manner in which the stories circulated. We know, for example, that Slovak potters and tinkers were popular storytellers in Transylvanian villages. Thus, the heroes of “The Tinkers and the Evil One” were probably carrying home new stories along with their hard earned wealth.
The world of traditional Slovak folktales is a marvellous world, full of daring heroes and terrible, twelve-headed dragons, clever maidens and lucky fools, tales that will give you a shiver, and tales that will have you laughing hard.
It’s a world that will be familiar to readers who know the tales of the Grimm brothers and the Russian tales of Afanas’ev, but strangely so, for the heroes and villains have new names and act, if sometimes only slightly, differently. In short, it’s a new world to the English-speaking reader, a parallel universe with its own population, geography, and language. This world was embodied in its classic form in collections of tales compiled, edited, and published by Pavol Dobšinsky between 1858 and 1883. Few have been translated since then, and yet these Slovak tales deserve a place alongside the major collections of world folklore, for they are tales of the highest quality.
The population of the world of Slovak tales is as diverse as any. Some of its heroes are larger than life, such as Lomidrevo, a.k.a. Valibuk, whose names could be rendered Breakwood and Rollbeech. Like all epic heroes, Lomidrevo is born under unusual circumstances, demonstrates his unusual potential early, and visits the underworld in the course of his adventures, emerging triumphantly. But while the adventures may be familiar from other heroic tales, in the final combination, Lomidrevo is a Slovak hero. Heroes may also be smaller than life, like Johnny Pea (Janko Hraško), or the person everyone least expects to be heroic, like Popolvár, the youngest brother who sits on the stove all day and is ignored. Of course, when we translate his name – Ashboy – we realize that we are in familiar territory, for he is the male counterpart to Cinderella. Popolvár is perhaps more popular than his female counterpart in Slovakia, but Popoluśka (Cinderella) nonetheless has her place in Slovakia as elsewhere. In fact, Dobšinský published three tales based on what is recognized as the Cinderella plot. One tale combines the Cinderella motif with a series of events that our readers will recognize from “Hansel and Gretel,” a combination that is often found in the Central European region. Aside from these traditional fairy tale heroes, there are also the heroes of other types of tales, like Kubo, the fool who, by luck or by chance or even through plays on words, turns his mistakes to his own advantage. There is also the murderous Mataj, whose tremendous sins are overcome only by a more incredible penance.
Of course, heroes need helpers. Where would Cinderella be without her fairy godmother? Maruška, in the story “Salt over Gold,” depends on the help of a wise old woman, one of the closest figures to a fairy godmother in these tales. A much more common helper in Slovak tales is the grey-headed old man, in whom Dobšinský, a Lutheran minister, saw the mythological picture of the primeval Slavic God. But they are not the only helpers, for animals can be helpers, too, as well as fish and ants. Perhaps the most important animal helper in Slovak tales is the fairy horse, for which Slovak has asingle word, tátoš, borrowed from the Hungarians, who, after all, swept into the Danube River basin centuries ago on horseback. The heroes often receive magic objects from their helpers, including golden wands, magic rings, and sabres.
Heroes are necessary because there are villains. Evil stepmothers dot the landscape of Slovak tales just as in other fairy-tale worlds, as do supernatural characters from folk superstition, including witches and warlocks, dwarfs and dragons, and even the devil himself. Unlike the red devils of Germanic tradition, the Slovak devil is black and hairy, with pointed ears, horns, a cow’s tail, and horse’s hooves. While the devil causes humans harm, he often appears dull-witted and all-too-human in these tales, but he can also appear as a dangerous foe, overcome only by the help of god.
Dragons have one, three, six, nine, twelve, or even twenty-four heads and are often the sons or helpers of witches. They travel on winged fairy horses and demand maidens as a sacrifice or keep them captive in the underworld.
Another character from the underworld is Laktibrada (Elbowbeard), the dwarf, “a span of a man with a beard to his elbow.” Normally cruel and lying, he can be made to help if one discovers his weakness – his beard.
Of course the essential nature of the tales varies for different types of tales, and the reader should be aware of the boundaries between them in order to better orient himself in the world of Slovak tales. The most common tales in Dobšinský’s collections are fairy tales proper, or, as some folklorists prefer, wonder tales, since fairies actually appear rarely in this type of tale. It is unlikely that these tales were the most widespread in the oral tradition when these tales were collected; humorous tales probably reigned supreme then as they do today. The longer and more complex wonder tale requires special conditions for its telling, including an audience that is open to its fantastic content. However, the early collectors focused on the wonder tale because of its obvious aesthetic qualities as well as their belief that this type of tale preserved the ancient mythology and beliefs of the Slovak nation.
Wonder tales take place in an unspecified place and tune and follow a hero as he overcomes various obstacles. The hero comes into contact with supernatural beings who serve either as helpers or as villains to be overcome, sometimes with the help of magic objects. The stories often begin with the hero leaving home and end happily, often in a wedding. The characteristic charm of these tales may be a result of the fact that the natural and supernatural exist side by side, undifferentiated. No hero ever gasps over a miracle in a wonder tale, for the fantastic is as common as the everyday. In fact, they expect and rely on the supernatural, like the two parting brothers in “The Enchanted Forest,” who drive their knives into a tree and expect to see either blood or water when they pull them out, which will indicate to them the fate of the other.
Many have seen in the wonder tale the victory of good over bad and beauty over ugliness, and thus have been tempted to ascribe a certain morality to the wonder tale. While the wonder tale does prefer sharp oppositions and while good characters do often triumph over bad, especially in tales involving an evil stepmother, one cannot speak of the moral character of the tales in general.
Villains like dragons and witches are often quite human and potentially sympathetic characters – the dragons even keep bees and play cards.
Moreover, the dragons keep their word, while the maidens lie and deceive to get away from them. Defeated dragons can even become helpers. But listeners and readers identify with the heroes and not their obstacles, no matter how sympathetic they may be. The wonder tale requires that the hero emerge victorious. Sometimes the hero’s siblings fail for no apparent reason, so that the hero—usually the youngest sibling—has to save them, and sometimes the hero has to lie or mistreat someone to accomplish his goals. In general, it is better to say that wonder tale heroes always triumph, much to the delight of the audience, and leave judgements about their morality aside. Also characteristic of the wonder tale is a certain abstraction of style, including the predominance of certain cardinal numbers: three, seven, and multiples of three. Scenes and actions are often repeated three times.
Novelistic tales are in some ways closely related to wonder tales, but insofar as the fantastic element is almost entirely removed, they can also stand as the antipodes to the wonder tale. The time and place remains undefined for these tales, but the setting—Slovak towns and villages—reflects the everyday life of the common person. Like wonder tales, novelistic tales delight in contrasts, although here the peasant is more frequently contrasted with the judge and merchant than with the king. Some elements of the fantastic can still be found in adventure tales, but the hero overcomes the obstacles most often by his own wit and imagination, rather than through the help of supernatural beings and objects. The language of novelistic tales is less formulaic in general, including a less frequent use of opening and closing formulae, and relatively simple. There is often an element of humor.
Humorous tales are closely related to novelistic tales, but emphasise typical situations and characters and the humor that arises from them. This is the home of heroes like Kubo and the foolish woman who destroys everything, but nonetheless wins riches. Humorous tales are and were widespread and common in Slovakia, and are well represented in the manuscript collections of the students of folk tales. But Dobšinský, in his publication, ignored humorous tales.
The early collectors of folktales had serious political and cultural goals that folktales were supposed to help fullfill, including providing a basis on which a literature and a nation could be built, and thus had little interest in frivolous and sometimes obscene tales. Only much later did Dobšinský come to appreciate the humorous tale, of which he included a few examples in his later publication.
When these folktales were being collected, they were considered national treasures, just as they are today. Then, the collectors believed that the wonder tales held the key to the ancient past of the Slovak nation, both its history and its beliefs. Dobšinský believed the wonder tale reflected the historical events of the ancient past only symbolically, but was keen to decipher the beliefs of the Slovaks’ ancestors from these tales. Today folklorists are far more careful in interpreting the wonder tale, because of the way the story form shapes the material drawn from social reality. Now these stories are considered national treasures both for the way they embody traditional societal values and, more importantly, for their aesthetic qualities, particularly the language of the tales. In most cases, Dobšinský bears final responsibility for this language, and not the folk narrators. Dobšinský published these tales at a time when the Slovak literary language was still being formed, and the tales certainly influenced the final form the standard language took. In fact, his entire generation of writers clearly benefited from their participation in the collecting of tales as students, both in the poetics they practiced and in the very natural Slovak language they employed. Dobšinský hoped to provide reading material for all, not just the highly educated, in order to inculcate the habit of reading in the nation. He published the tales following the forms of the written norm and left only a few humorous tales completely in dialect. But he did not over-correct; he left numerous dialectal terms and archaisms in all the tales in order to give a better sense of place and character. The result is a rich and subtle Slovak drawn from the language of the people and their environment.
1. Linda Dégh, Folktales and Society: Storytelling in a Hungarian Peasant Community
2. Viera Gašparíková, Encyklopédia l’udeovej kultúty Slovenska
3. Stefan Krčmery, O poesii našich povestí
4. Max Lüthi, The European Folktale: Form and Nature