Book: Two Books of Fairy Tales

Definitely very different sets of fairy tales. I started reading F. R. Kreutzwald’s Old Estonian Fairy Tales, took a break in the middle to read Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Tales and A House of Pomegranates, and then finished the Kreutzwald. I decided to wait and do them together.

I’m not sure how fruitful comparing the two is. I had hoped it would be, but I don’t know anything about fairy tales, so it’s hard for me to make much of a comparison. I can evaluate them both as works of literature, but I can’t evaluate them as fairy tales.

That said, I am interested in comparing their style. (The Kreutzwald stories are translated from Estonian, so the English style is that of the translator, but I can’t imagine the general style changes too much.) One of the things I really loved about Kreutzwald’s stories was their simplicity. This is true of a lot of fairy tales as well as a lot of children’s literature, which I suppose must have roots in fairy tales. I’ve never studied children’s literature. Now, Wilde’s writing is a thousand times prettier than Kreutzwald’s translators’, but this simplicity is deceptive, and that’s what’s so wonderful about it.

I noticed this when I started reading the books of Aino Pervik (Estonian children’s author, so good for my language level). The matter-of-factness of children’s literature is full of opportunities to confuse and unsettle, often to such an extent that it’s not clear whether the book is actually unsettling. That is, it’s so subtle that you can’t tell if it’s subtle or not. It could be deep and unfathomable or it could be absolutely literal–depending on how horrible are the events described, absolutely literal is usually worse.

There’s a good example in a Kreutzwald story called “Tiidu the Musician.” The plot goes: Tiidu is too lazy to do farm work, but he’s a talented musician. He leaves home and goes to the very wealthy country of Kungla where he eventually gets rich by playing music. When he goes home he gets shipwrecked because of his greed. He repents and gets magical help. He ends up back in Kungla where he gets rich again (though less so) and then comes home a better man. Because he is less greedy at the end, the sea gives him back the money lost by his shipwreck.

Tiidu gets rich three times during the story. The first is in Kungla because of his bagpipes, the second is in Kungla because of some really nasty magic, and the third is at home at the end when the treasure appears. I want to talk about the second.

After his first period in Kungla, Tiidu gets shipwrecked on an island where he gets acquainted with a certain species of apple and a strange species of nut. If you eat the apple, your nose turns into a turkey wattle and droops down to your waist. Eat the nut and everything is fixed. Tiidu stockpiles a whole bunch of both before getting rescued and taken back to Kungla.

Again in Kungla, Tiidu sells the apples to the court and then disguises himself as a famous doctor. When inevitably the whole royal family grows turkey wattles for noses, Tiidu cures them with the nuts and gets a reward. It’s sort of a fun new twist, because just playing the bagpipes again would be a boring way for him to make his money back.

But mind you, Tiidu could make the money through his music. What is a fun twist that avoids repeating Tiidu’s musical career is actually a mutilation story. That Tiidu knows he can cure the Kungla royals of their disfigurement is irrelevant. He mutilates them, he mutilates them after he’s become a good person, it’s completely unnecessary, and at the end of the story the sea rewards him! (Rewards him with money for no longer being greedy…)

But it isn’t the events but the apparent naivete with which they’re described that makes the story so unnerving. Kreutzwald gives absolutely reason for why Tiidu mutilates the royal family for money. He just does it: “On his arrival he disguised himself, selected the nicest of the apples he had brought with him from the island and went to the king’s palace, hoping to sell them.” That’s it. No hesitation. No reflection. Go turn the king into a turkey. It’s fine. You’ll turn him back.

But that’s precisely the point. In a story called “Prince who Escapes Danger Saves his Brothers,” the queen is going to be executed for giving birth to puppies instead of sons. (Her jealous older sister has hired a witch.) She has managed to save one son from being exchanged for a dog, but that doesn’t appease her husband.

“Then the king had all his judges summoned and asked their advice. The judges’ decision was, ‘It is horrible to burn a human being alive, and just as horrible to pull a noose tight around a gentle neck and hang her in the gallows. It is even more horrible to put anyone to the sword. Let us have an iron bed with high sides made, place the mother and the son in it, take them into the open sea and throw the bed overboard.’ The king took their advice.”

Wait. What? Because the presentation is so mercilessly factual, there are no clues in the text about how we’re supposed to interpret this. It just is. Apparently we wouldn’t want to hang the queen, but it’s no problem drowning her, which is better than cutting her head off, which is worse than setting her on fire?? Instances of casual violence run up and down the collection, and they’re always just … there.

It’s worth comparing to the Wilde stories, which don’t have nearly the same power. That’s not to say they’re not interesting, they just don’t unsettle in the same way. Here’s an example from a story called “The Birthday of the Infanta.” The infanta’s father, the reigning king, is thinking about his dead wife and reminiscing about his wedding day:

“To-day he seemed to see her again, as he had seen her first at the Castle of Fontainebleau, when he was but fifteen years of age, and she still younger. They had been formally betrothed on that occasion by the Papal Nuncio in the presence of the French King and all the Court, and he had returned to the Escurial bearing with him a little ringlet of yellow hair, and the memory of two childish lips bending down to kiss his hand as he stepped into his carriage. Later on had followed the marriage, hastily performed at Burgos, a small town on the frontier between the two countries, and the grand public entry into Madrid with the customary celebration of high mass at the Church of La Atocha, and a more than usually solemn auto-da-fé in which nearly three hundred heretics, amongst whom were many Englishmen, had been delivered over to the secular arm to be burned.”

As I say, Wilde’s use of English is much prettier than that of Kreutzwald’s translators, but that actually robs the passage of the kind of horror of a factual, childishly described fairy tale atrocity. Wilde presents us the auto-da-fé as an ironic accompaniment to the wedding, which nicely establishes the blend of beauty and brutality that runs through “Infanta.” That means we already have an interpretive lens through which to understand the passage. We can therefore accept the violence as a literary device. It has a clear interpretive purpose.

But for me, that meant that the Kreutzwald tales (not all of them–some are dull) were generally more moving than the Wilde ones. The Wilde stories had a hard time coming alive under blankets of irony and sophistication. That’s no slight to Wilde–emotional numbness seems to be part of the point–but generally the Kreutzwald stories were more fun.

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