Book: More Estonian Fairy Tales

I’m going to start putting the full info for each book at the beginning of each post.

Deep in the Forest: One Hundred Estonian Fairy Tales About the Forest and its People, compiled by Risto Järv, translated by Adam Cullen, 2018.

Again I thought these were pretty wonderful. They’re actually more diverse than those of Kreutzwald. That is an essential thing to keep in mind when reading folklore. It’s easy to get lost in the illusion that a story is the product of a culture. Every story is, in some sense, but though stories may flow through a group, each retelling belongs only to its teller. Kreutzwald has his style and his wishes; there are many stories in this collection that seem at odds with Kreutzwald–not that the same stories exist here in different versions, but that the assumptions, about chance, goodness, justice, or any other theme, actually conflict.

Last time I spoke about how disturbing a fairy tale’s apparent childishness can be: how simplicity of presentation can create jarring, unnerving contrasts. There was less of that in these, I think. At times these stories seemed to be more self-aware. It’s possible that Kreutzwald imposed that apparent naivete on his stories deliberately.

There were other, equally compelling reasons to find these stories disturbing (this is a compliment). I’m going to rewrite in full one called “The Man in the Blue Cloak”.

“Once, a master and his servant were night watching a herd of horses in a forest valley. When daybreak began to glow on the horizon, the master and his servant clambered under some wide willow scrub and fell asleep. Suddenly, half-asleep, the servant heard the quite rapid thundering of heavy footsteps through the ground. Opening his eyes, he saw a large man coming out of the forest, his head extending above the tops of the pines. The servant didn’t dare move a muscle, in terror.

That man stood there at the edge of the forest for a little while, then started plodding towards the side of the valley opposite the sleepers. Over his shoulders, the man wore a broad blue cloak tied with a massively thick cord; he had a big blue hat on his head, woven bark shoes on his feet, and griped half a log as a cane. His eyes were like the bottoms of barrels, his mouth like an enormous chasm, and his hair hung in curls upon his shoulders. When he walked, the ground shuddered darkly beneath his feet.

When he came to the edge of a grassy knoll, he flopped down, his eyes shut, his mouth that was filled with stake-like teeth opened wide, and the loud snoring that echoed through the forest indicated the mighty man was asleep. But that sleep didn’t last any longer than a few minutes before the man’s eyes swung open again like hayloft doors and he peered around, as if searching for something. Finally, his gaze locked on the servant trembling beneath the willow scrub. He stared at the quivering boy for a minute, then opened his jaws that were like flax brakes and murmured in a voice akin to thunder: ‘You ain’t allowed to graze horses in this valley at sunrise.’

Having said this, he returned to the forest with footsteps that made the ground shake, disappearing into the distance afer a while. The sun soon started to rise, and the boy woke his master, telling him the vision he’d had. The master said he’d also seemed to feel the ground shake while he was sleeping.

Then, they speedily herded the horses out of that valley to home so the sun wouldn’t rise first.

The night herders have never dared to drive their herd there into the valley again, but the colossally big man in the blue cloak has never been seen again, either. Nor has anyone been able to figure out or explain what kind of a creature that Goliath-like man may have been.”

What I find so marvelous about this story (and there are several others like it in this respect) is the absolute lack of obligation to provide the reader with some kind of meaning and the confusion and sense of discontinuity that creates. We’ve got two regular people out in the woods; one of them sees a giant–note that this is as marvelous to the character as it is to the reader or hearer. The giant tells the boy to get lost, and then the boy and his master do. That’s it. There’s no explanation and there is certainly no apparent “meaning.”

In that sense I would actually compare it to Euripides’ Medea. Medea isn’t rattling because Medea kills both the Corinthian royal family and her own children: it’s rattling because she pops off in the chariot of the sun leaving Jason and the audience with absolutely no idea how to process what she’s done. There is neither closure nor any sense of justice, which is a narrow way of saying that the story resists interpretation.

Much literature strives to be interpretable: we expect stories to have clear beginnings, follow logically into middles, and culminate in ends that rest causally on the events that have preceded them and offer a sense of closure. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but it’s worth remembering how powerful a story can become by refusing to conform.

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