Monday, June 4, 2018

Of Vilas and Dragons (Following folktales around the world 68. - Serbia)

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!

Serbian Fairy Tales
Jelena Curcic
Flying Fish Publications, 2013.

Once again the name of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić pops up: He collected tales all over the Balkans in the 19th century, and the author of this book selected these 20 stories from his collection. Karadžić's collection in its own time was remarkable and much appreciated; even the Grimm brothers followed it with interest, and Karadžić added a letter of gratitude to its publication (a letter which is translated to English in this book). It is also important to note that Jelena Curcic is not only an author and translator, but also a practicing storyteller, which made her selections and language dear to my heart (you can follow her on Twitter). Karadžić divided tales into two types: "Female tales" were fairy tales, wonder tales, and anything mythical, while "male tales" were legends, anecdotes, and funny stories. This book, true to its title and its author, contains 20 "female tales." Each story comes with great notes and comments, there is a detailed introduction, and even the Serbian alphabet in the back. The book's publishing was supported by Art Council England and the Serbian Council of Great Britain, in order to promote Serbian oral tradition in the UK, and allow second- and third generation immigrants to connect with, and share, their culture.


The first story in the book is also the best: The maiden who was faster than a horse is reminiscent of all kinds of race-running tales... except here the girl actually wins! She runs on foot, racing her suitors on horseback, creates all kinds of obstacles, and only stops at the end to be "captured" to disappear the next moment. The girl was created from summer snow by the Vilas, iconic female figures of Serbian mythology (they might be familiar from Harry Potter). The Vilas appeared in several other tales as well, among them Vila's Mountain, where a mortal man went to live with them.
Apart from Vilas, we are also introduced to the two kinds of dragons of Serbian tradition: The Azdaja, which is serpent-like and usually evil, and the more human-like, strong and powerful Zmaj. The former was usually fought and killed in tales, but there was also one (The Magic Ring) in which a female (!) Azdaja was rescued by the hero from the stag trapped in her throat, and in exchange gave him a magic ring.
The strangest, most unique tale was The Bear's Son. It began like other Bearson-tales (except here the mortal mother ran away, leaving the cub to be raised with his bear-father), but then turned into a strange adventure full of giants and over-the-top visuals. Interestingly enough, this second part has its clear parallels among the Caucasian Nart sagas. I wonder how that happened.

The tale of Real Steel was a very nice combination of tale types. It begins with Water of Life, with nighttime giant-slaying adventures and a visit to the sleeping princess. Except while in most variants the hero gets the sleeping princess pregnant (ew), in this one he kills a snake that is trying to bite her. I like this a lot better. The second half of the story is that of Koschei the Deathless, with the kidnapped wife and the magic horse race. This second type also appeared in the Golden Apple Tree and Nine Peahens, where it followed the tale type of the golden apples stolen by fairy maidens.
The volume concludes with a strange and ominous short tale, where a king takes his army to the Dark Realm, and some soldiers pick up pebbles in the dark - only to discover in the light that they are diamonds.


Of course the book contained several familiar types and motifs that are known all over Europe, and the Balkans. Multiple tales had the motif of the villain's life being hidden outside of his body (The young tzarevich and the Azdaja). There was a clever maiden (The maiden who outsmarted the Tzar), and a Hovering Castle, which was the same as the underworld adventure of the "three kidnapped princesses" type, except here the hero ha to climb up, not down. The popularity of the Vilas is shown in the tale where instead of a golden goose, the princess was brought to laughter by people stuck to The Vila's Carriage.
I was happy to find yet another variant of my favorite tale, the Extraordinary Helpers, in Tzar's Son-in-Law and the Winged Old Woman. I especially liked that it was attached to the motif of a boy imprisoned for a dream - and that he bore a hole in the wall to visit the princess who was imprisoned in the next room over. Helpers with superpowers also appeared in Seven Little Vlachs, where they argued over who gets to marry the rescued princess, and they eventually all rose into the sky, and turned into the Pleiades (I read this variant in the Greek book too). Another favorite type of mine, Son of the Hunter, also made an appearance as The Golden-fleeced Ram, also with some clear Greek parallels; in this version the hero had to build an entire ivory city, not just a palace. And talking about the Greeks, let's not forget Tzar Trojan's Goat Ears. You can guess which myth that reminded me of.

Where to next?

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