One reason I haven’t bought an e-reader is my fascination with the book as a physical object. That, and because I buy nearly all my books used. Each one has a story separate from what’s contained within its pages. A book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a note from 1915 inked on the inside cover. A 1919 edition of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. My copy of Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (probably the single most important book in my life) has pencilled scribbles in the early chapters—my dad’s Polish translations of various words from back when he was learning English; he remembered the Polish translation of the novel so well he thought it would carry over. He still has his Polish copy somewhere.
I’ve kept Klechdy Domowe (Domestic Fairy Tales) on my shelf, a collection of Polish fairy tales and legends. The book was a present for my sister in 1989, though I’m the one who ended up with it. Most notable are Zbigniew Rychlicki’s handsome illustrations, which have an oddly Slavic air about them.
Slavic fairy tales have a much different history from western ones. It took far longer for the tales to become associated specifically with children, usually the stories were told after children went to bed. On another level, Slavic folklorists respected such tales because the last remnants of old Slavic customs and religious beliefs remain within them. Records are much more faithful, collectors and anthologists were much less likely to tweak the tales in order to make them more suitable for children and the like. There’s good reason for this: whereas we have plenty of records concerning Celtic, Germanic, Nordic and Greco-Roman myth cycles, we know far less about pagan Slavic myths due to a lack of written accounts, even though paganism persisted far longer in Eastern Europe than in the west and south. Pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices are mostly lost; what we have of folk-belief was already long integrated into Orthodox and Catholic Christianity. Supernatural Slavic spirits were flexible in this regard; domovoi (or, as I knew them, domowice) were nothing but accommodating towards the religion of a household. But of the old gods—Trzygłów, Perun, Swarog, Czarnobóg, and the like—we know little. Accounts are muddled and neo-Pagan attempts at re-creating indigenous Slavic belief (which differed significantly from region to region) only confuse matters further by inventing a great deal. The last traces of old Slavic belief systems lie in our fairy tales and legends.
There’s also a different in scale, as many Slavic tales feature heroic quest narratives not quite as common in western fairy tales. Mention of old gods persists in tales like “The Queen of the Baltic”, where the titular queen’s amber palace is destroyed by Perun, god of thunder, explaining the amber that washes up on the Baltic shore. Other figures, such as the Baba Jaga or Kościej the Deathless, had some sort of religious significance before becoming stock characters of such tales. Duellist interpretations have had an unfortunate effect: the Baba Jaga both helps and hinders our heroes and heroines in Slavic tales, yet western retellings often show her as an exclusively evil figure. In the Polish stories, as well, we often find more than one such crone (“The Frog Princess” has three, all dwelling in houses on chicken-legs). Białabóg’s insertion into the Slavic pantheon comes from the same misreading of Slavic mythology—a white god to oppose the black god, Czarnobóg. Except that we have no evidence that Białobóg was ever a member of the pantheon, and the actual relationship between gods as well as the overarching cosmology is hazy and evidently alien to Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian or Celtic sensibilities.
Peculiar to Poland are the great many basilisks roaming the land. The Warsaw basilisk is the most famous, but there are many other tales and accounts, including one of a wicked queen turned into a basilisk as punishment for her sins and (as all these stories end) met her end via her own reflection. Dragons were easier to dispatch, a shoemaker defeated the dragon of Kraków by stuffing a sheep with sulphur. The dragon ate the sheep, then drank so much water it exploded. The basilisk is obviously not something from old Slavic beliefs, though its importance in Polish tales is curious. Of more ancient pedigree are the rusałki, creatures that have captured my imagination—the spirits of drowned young women who thrive, succubus-like, on the lives and love of those who cross their path, sometimes leading people into wild circle dances. During Rusałka week in early June, they were at their most active, and swimming was strictly forbidden since they had a penchant for drowning people, too. And most terrifying of all, they could lure you with their songs and tickle you to death.
It’s annoying to see that English writers drawing from Slavic myth and legend tend to be so cavalier about it all, often only snatching out the more recognizable figures for use in their own stories, nearly always transplanting them into outside contexts. The aforementioned Baba Jaga-as-dark-lord syndrome is one example. My annoyance at China Mieville’s use of vodyanoi (Wodnice) stemmed from the word itself, which essentially means “water-thing” but no one in Bas-Lag seemed to know Russian. And finally Guy Gavriel Kay’s Riselkas in Tigana, which borrow the look of rusałki and the name, and nothing more. Through such appropriation, they often became diminished.
The more expansive Slavic wonder tales have more in common with Beowulf than Cinderella. They are the last drum of the Slavic epics still beating along after all these years.
Links of Interest:
Helen Pilinovsky, “Russian Fairy Tales, Part I: The Fantastic Traditions of East and West” (2004).
A.J. Glinsky, Polish Fairy Tales (1920).
A.H. Wratislaw, Sixty Folk Tales from Exclusively Slavonic Sources (1890).