Rossdavidh's Reviews > Czech Fairytales

Czech Fairytales by Karel Jaromír Erben
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really liked it
bookshelves: red

So, I got to go to Prague, recently. I had delusions of learning Czech before I went, but that didn't seem to stick at all. It was fun, though. One of the ridiculous things I like to do when I have the great fortune to visit a city in another country, is hit a bookstore. For the most part, this is ridiculous, because I can't read any of them. But, there is often a little English section, and that can be interesting, because sometimes you see books there that you wouldn't see in your hometown bookstore, nor even think to look for online.

For example, this little book of Czech fairytales. I like the fact that it is hardbound with a ribbon bookmark woven into the binding. I like the fact that it has copious illustrations, by someone named Lucie Müllerová. I like the fact that it had tales each about the perfect length for reading after I was in bed, before I went to sleep.

These tales were collected by Božena Němcová (a woman from the mid 19th century who unfortunately lived only to the age of 42 but is now pictured on the Czech 500 crown note) and Karel Jaromír Erben (a gentleman from the 19th century who lived rather longer), but are presumably much older. They are the equivalent of the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm in German-speaking lands, and for much the same reason: by collecting these folk tales, it was intended that the Czechs begin to think of themselves as a people, with a distinctive culture.

If this is valid, then it appears that the Czechs used to spend a lot of time making deals with devils. Actually, arbitrary conditions and unfair curses and deals with the devil all feature prominently in this collection, and I suppose perhaps this was good preparation for the experience of the Czech people throughout the 20th century.

My favorite tale is probably "The Devil and Kate", even though I have several friends named Kate and none of them are like the woman in the story. She is, in fact, not an entirely sympathetic character, as the devil in question is mostly feeling sorry for her and trying to help her out, but then regrets it. In fact, Kate more or less gets shuffled offstage about halfway through this story, which is odd since she's the only named character, except for Lucifer, who has a cameo in which he dispenses some excellent relationship advice but otherwise takes no part in the course of events.

In fact, though, I pretty much enjoyed all of these stories. I enjoyed even the ones where the outcome seemed unfair to at least some of the characters. It seems like a lot of daughters get married off to people they haven't had a chance to meet yet, for example, but they're normally peasants who now have magical abilities to conjure up wealth so it's not the worse fate I suppose. I think my favorite pictures were the ones of the magical pot which would pour forth porridge until you said the words to stop it, when the old lady forgot what the words were and it flooded the village. I like to imagine Lucie Müllerová frowned at least a little bit as she tried to figure out how that should be illustrated. It reminded me a bit of the Great Molasses Flood of Boston.

Like many fairy tales, there are plot holes big enough to drive an enchanted carriage with four horses through, and the characterization is generally pretty sketchy. However, as Shaun Tan has recently pointed out to me in his book "The Singing Bones", a good fairy tale sticks in your head because it has lots of imperfections, but they are of just the right kind, and the things that don't make sense just make you think about the story more. I am glad that people such as Erben and Němcová took the time to beat the bushes for these old tales, and wrote them down before they were forgotten. Read one every night before sleep, they are time tested to tease your brain in just the right way.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
January 3, 2019 – Shelved
January 3, 2019 – Shelved as: red

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