Monday, January 29, 2018

Kokles-music saves the day (Following folktales around the world 56. - Latvia)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

A Laima és a két anya
Lett népmesék
Voight Vilmos
Európa Könyvkiadó, 1972.

Once again I had the luck of reading a volume of Tales of Nations, because I already had it on my shelf, and because it is a very useful, high quality publication. It contains 164 Latvian folktales, selected to show a range of folk genres, from origin legends and pourquoi stories through elaborate fairy tales all the way to jokes and anecdotes. The editor, famous folklorist Vilmos Voight, penned the afterword on the history of Latvia (up to Soviet times, obviously), the origins of the Latvian folklore movement, and the Latvian folklore archives that contain more than 150k stories. The book contains extensive notes, sources, tale type numbers, and a glossary. The translation aims to reflect the original, uncensored language of the oral tradition.
For those of you who don't read Hungarian, I recommend reading other collections of Latvian folktales, like this one or this one.


Among the pourquoi stories, my favorite was titled How the birds learned their songs. It features a whole bunch of birds that all went out to see the world, observe sounds, and learn their song. It would make a great educational story.

The kokles is a folk instrument
Among the fairy tales, I especially liked the Strange deer, in which a princess fell in love with a poor kokles-player, and they could only be together after a series of marvelous transformations. Kokles-players were definitely the elite of folktale heroes: One of them tamed a wolf with music, whole another was helped by the mysterious Green Man in defeating giants and winning a princess.
The tale of the Magic Word came to a less celebratory ending: After the hero released his spirit-servant, the spirit disappeared along with all his wealth. The tale ended with the hero sending his princess-wife back home, so that she would not have to live in poverty.
The most adventurous of the legends was that of The Siege of Riga, in which a soldier hero shot silver bullets at a witch transformed into a magpie - and the magpie shot back. The most endearing was The peasant who wrote a letter to the emperor. The letter was a series of doodles, explaining a claim, but since the emperor met the peasant in disguise, he could later pretend at court that he could read exactly what the doodles meant, granting the poor man his request. I also really liked the Devil and the clerk, in which the Devil refused to take anyone who was wished to hell, because people were not saying "go to hell" from their true heart.


There were two variants in the book for the Beanstalk tale, except it was not jack who climbed up to the sky, but two very capable maidens, who won their fortune by helping an old man, rather than robbing him. The Witch's Birch Tree was a variant on the Twin Princes tale type, except in this one the witch was a lot harder to kill, and the companion animals (wolves! bears! deer! goats! foxes! rabbits! lynxes! dogs!) got a more active role (you can find this story in a picture book format in English here).
The golden apple tree, golden bird, and three princes story was a variant of what is usually known as the Firebird, Golden rain and Tar rain was a variant of Frau Holle, and the Radiant Bird was that of the Princess on the Glass Mountain, except this one also featured a tiny, feathered underground gnome king (which is pretty cool). Reading the title of the Flying Boat I was all ready for some Extraordinary Helpers, but the story really did only feature a flying boat...
The frogs from Riga and Liepaja were the Latvian cousins of the Japanese frogs from Osaka and Kyoto. No news is a favorite of American storytellers, and the Old man's glove was a variant of the Ukrainian Mitten tale. And of course, because we are still in the Baltic countries, there was a Magic Mill grinding salt into the sea.

Where to next?

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